Last Sunday, I returned from my farmers market with something I never intended to get: single use, throwaway plastic bags.
Normally, I take my own reusable cloth bags and fill them up using no plastic at all. But there’s a “new normal” in place thanks to the coronavirus pandemic. Whereas pre-pandemic, farmers would lay out their fruits and vegetables “au natural” and let shoppers select and stash their own, on Sunday, the freshly picked spinach, kale, bok choy and apples I chose were all pre-bagged to make shopping as quick and contact-free as possible. If my purchase of four items was an average (though that’s probably low), and say, 500 shoppers came through the market on just this one day, 2,000 more plastic bags were used at my market on Sunday than usually are. Magnify that by the 8,600 farmers markets just in the U.S., and that means that over 17 million extra plastic bags are being used each week just at farmers markets.
But it’s not only plastic bags that are being increasingly used. Later Sunday night, I decided to do something I haven’t done since the pandemic quarantine lock down. I ordered dinner for delivery. The restaurant promised “contactless” service, meaning they’d leave my meal on my porch rather than hand it to me personally. Initially, that was reassuring. But once my order arrived and I started unpacking it, I was dismayed once again at how much plastic was involved. The food was delivered in a plastic bag and packaged in several plastic containers. None of the containers was reusable. I had forgotten to say “no utensils,” so a supply of throwaway plastic forks and knives was included, as well. By the end of the day, I’d consumed more plastic in 12 hours than I had in a month.
This same scenario is playing out all over the world as people switch to single-use plastic in an effort to keep their distance from a contagious and deadly disease. And farmers markets and restaurants are nothing compared to all the surgical masks, gloves, personal protective equipment (PPE), hand sanitizer bottles, disinfecting wipes, and other plastic paraphernalia being used at homes, businesses, hospitals and clinics to minimize viral exposure.
Plastic and Health
Of course, people need to stay safe, especially medical professionals, first responders, grocery store clerks, and other providers of essential services. On the other hand, plastic is such a scourge itself that we all need to be aware of how much we’re using and where we can limit it. For one thing, plastic poses many threats to human health. The chemicals in some plastic have been linked to hormone disruptions, birth defects, cancer, and learning disabilities. Breathing microparticles of plastic can contaminate our lungs and trigger asthma attacks. Manufacturing plastic creates nasty air pollution that exacerbates cardiovascular disease and neurological problems.
Ironically, plastic may not be as safe as people think it is. A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that the virus might last longer on plastics and stainless steel than on cardboard, suggesting that paper is safer than plastic.
Plastic and the Environment
Plastic creates intractable environmental problems. It clogs waterways and gets into lakes and oceans, where it kills wildlife that get entrapped in nets and fishing line, or die when their stomachs can’t take any more of the colorful microplastic the animals mistake for food.
The manufacturing of plastic also worsens climate change. Global plastic production has quadrupled over the past four decades, so much so that plastics manufacturing is projected to make up 15% of greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.
Meanwhile, people might consciously be justifying their plastic consumption by thinking it will be recycled. But pre-pandemic, only 9% of plastic was being recycled. That number will probably drop significantly during the pandemic because many municipalities have suspended plastic recycling programs they don’t deem as “essential.” States that have enacted “bottle bills” so consumers can return their beverage containers for a nickel or dime deposit have put those on hold. Other cities and counties are lifting bans on single-use bags they put in place, opening floodgates that environmentalists fear may never be closed.
Here’s How to Stay Safe, Healthy and Use Less Plastic:
- Many grocery stores require their cashiers to bag everything in plastic. If you can’t bag items in your own bags, just put your items back in your cart, wheel your cart to your car trunk, and bag them there in your own bags. Alternatively, ask your store to stock paper bags.
- Encourage farmers to bag their produce in paper, not plastic. Farmers can use one display bag to show consumers what’s inside, and then use paper for the sales.
- Use reusable cloth masks you can launder. Easily buy them on line, or make your own masks.
- Skip plastic gloves. Gloves can actually worsen your chances of exposure because the virus may adhere more strongly to latex glove material. Limit what you touch, then wash your hands with soap and water when you get back home.
- There’s no proof that our water supply is in any danger, so keep filling up a reusable water bottle at home rather than buy plastic bottles of water.
- Keep an eye out for companies developing alternatives to single-use plastic.