Every time you do a lateral flow coronavirus test, you throw away around 10g of plastic. If every adult and secondary school student in the UK did the recommended two tests a week, it would produce more than 1,000 tonnes of rubbish every seven days. In less than a month this would fill an Olympic-size swimming pool.
Those of us who before the pandemic were involved in campaigns to cut our dependence on plastic, encouraging our communities to become “plastic free”, may feel like criticising such consumption. Should we stop these tests, knowing what we do about the plastic pollution crisis?
Absolutely not. They are at the forefront of our ability to control the virus and help our country return to a form of normality. So too are the countless tonnes of plastic used in the development, production, transportation and delivery of the vaccine, not to mention all the single-use medical consumables essential to help those unfortunate enough to end up in hospital.
Plastic has shown yet again what a wonderful, versatile and lifesaving product it can be. Without it, the pandemic would be going very differently. However, it is all too easy to forget this when stepping over the Covid cast-offs littering our streets. Single-use face masks, surgical gloves, tiny bottles of hand sanitiser and antiseptic wipes have become as common as cigarettes butts were a few years ago.
An interesting aspect of all this is a recently identified phenomenon called “hygiene theatre“. That is, individuals and businesses that make sure they look like they’re fighting the pandemic, but perhaps not doing very much of real effect. From repeatedly incorrectly changing single-use face masks to the use of disposable laminated menus in restaurants and metre-high plastic dividers between tables in rowdy pubs, there has arguably been an abundance of this behaviour throughout the various stages of the pandemic. And as we now approach the great unlocking on 19 July, some measures and behavioural changes are likely to remain – not least our desire to be personally protected, and our increased dependence on takeaway food and online shopping, both great generators of plastic. But the question is, how can we achieve safety and convenience in our post-lockdown world in a more balanced way?
The most visible symbol of the pandemic also presents us with an excellent case study for how necessary this rethinking is: face masks. A single-use disposable face mask can be 10 times more damaging to the climate than a reusable cotton one. Most of us, most of the time, when we’re nipping into shops do not need to use a disposable surgical-type face mask. Yet still 53m are being sent to landfill every day in the UK, which doesn’t cover all those that make up the bulk of Covid cast-offs on our streets.
A significant proportion of people are using them because of our accepted cultural insistence on convenience, or perceived convenience. We think it’s easier to pick up a throwaway mask when we’re entering a shop than it is to remember our own, in the way it was once more convenient to use free plastic bags in a supermarket than remember our own. But shifting our reliance away from single-use plastic doesn’t have to mean the end of convenience – far from it. Instead it just means we need to move towards “considerate convenience”: giving a little more consideration to our actions, and being a bit more considerate towards each other and the planet.
There have been reports of takeaway sales surging by up to 600% during lockdown. This, in turn, brings a mountain of single-use plastic to landfill. A great example of considerate convenience in this sector is the Shrewsbury Cup scheme, whereby the town’s cafes all using the same type of reusable take-out cup. Customers pay a deposit for the cup which can be returned to any of the businesses serving drinks. It’s then washed and reused. Yes, it may require a tiny bit more effort than just throwing a used cup in the bin, but it’s far better for the environment. The Shrewsbury Cup scheme is part of a wider move among increasingly environmentally conscious takeaway providers to find plastic-free ways of delivering food, including, for example, making deliveries in sturdy packaging customers can take away with them again.
Little known too is that Amazon will reduce the plastic packaging used in your deliveries – but you have to contact customer services to ask for the option to be applied to your account. Hope is also provided by a growing amount of biodegradable plastic coming on to the market.
Improving plastic recycling is another area that needs investment to ensure it’s both efficient and viable. Less than 10% of plastic is currently recycled and this is usually downgraded to poorer quality plastic. Alternatives to plastic need to be considered wherever possible. Moves are being made to make the polluter pay, which could see companies such as Coca Cola take responsibility for the plastic rubbish they produce. It’s also clear that the traditional take-make-waste model for our plastic use must be replaced with a more circular system – designing products and consumer processes differently.
The pandemic has highlighted the good and the bad of plastic use, showing more clearly than ever that plastic consumption is all about balance. Wasteful use of virgin plastic turns our oceans into plastic soups. This was part of the message many of us were trying to get out before the pandemic hit. Now that we’re being urged to “build back better” as we come out of lockdown, let’s seize the opportunity to change our thinking about plastic. Let’s appreciate what a wonderful resource it can be – and crucially let’s realise that, like all resources, it must be used wisely and not wasted.
Dr Christian Dunn is a senior lecturer in zoology at Bangor University and an environmental campaigner