As the co-founder of a refill station in Los Angeles, I am a small part of the growing movement to find solutions to the plastic pollution crisis — “zero waste” in the vernacular.
At the outset, it seemed that the coronavirus outbreak would backslide the progress of the zero waste movement. Starbucks stopped accepting reusable cups, and other businesses quickly followed suit. The Plastics Industry Association capitalized on the general fear of virus spread and lobbied not only to delay and undo single-use bag bans, but to instate bans on reusable bags. And in a few cases it has succeeded.
It feels like “ten steps forward, eleven steps back” as one comment on the Zero Waste LA Facebook group put it. Whether the coronavirus can permanently undo all of the anti-SUP rulings remains to be seen- but even the temporary reversals can certainly dishearten those of us that advocate for more reusable options.
But I would like to argue that the zero waste movement will be back stronger than ever. The upside to this global crisis is that we’ve been able to watch as mass cooperation results in wanted change. If the pandemic response serves as a precedent to the plastic crisis response, then we can flatten the single-use plastics curve before we overwhelm the planet, just as we attempt to flatten the virus curve before we overwhelm the hospitals.
For disclosure, I do believe that there is a time and a place for single-use plastics, at least until we have better and implemented technology for sanitization. That time is now, because of the pandemic we face, and that place is, well, anywhere that single-use plastics are actually a necessary precaution.
However, the plastics industry shouldn’t be using this opportunity to wage war on reusables, rather, it should direct its resources towards manufacturing those plastic goods for which there are no hygienic reusable alternatives (like IV bags and syringes). Fixation on reusables as the perpetrators of the virus slights the reality that the virus can just as easily live and be transported on credit cards, paper money, every single item that passes through the supply chain, and any shared surfaces that we can’t constantly wipe down with Lysol, like the floor.
In a letter to the US Department of Health, the PIA cites three studies showing “that reusable bags can carry viruses and bacteria, spread them throughout a grocery store, and live on surfaces for up to three days.” These findings are less consequential when held in consideration with a study from NIH which found that the COVID-19 virus can remain active for 2–3 days on plastic. Obviously, single-use packaging isn’t entirely sterile, either. While it’s easy enough to find arguments for and against reusables and single use bags, to objectively pick a side ultimately depends on deciphering which studies are biased. The latter two studies cited by the PIA — underwritten by the American Chemistry Council- seemingly are.
The plastic industry’s machinations aside, is there really any reason for disemboldenment of the zero waste movement? Absolutely not. The plastic pollution crisis and environmental collapse are as real as ever. For better or for worse, the haste to stop the coronavirus has momentarily distracted us from the abundance of other impending casualties.
The good news is that the solution to the virus is also advantageous to the zero waste movement. Confined to our homes, our worlds have become a lot smaller. Distractions go only as far as our walls and our screens, reining in on our scope of decisions. It has made us slow down, which is exactly what the planet needs.
The only threat to the zero waste movement greater than plastic lobbyists, is our own busyness. Haste makes waste, and in our haste to balance work and home and social lives, even those of us who care about the environment usually struggle to live by our environmentally-minded values.
Stuck inside, we have the time to create a circular home economy. Whereas before, much of the mobilization for zero waste came from the outside in — we advocated for plastic bans to influence the supply chain — now it starts from the inside out. We have the opportunity to do the important work of reducing food waste by using all of our groceries, fixing things that are broken and giving them a second life, figuring out what actually can and cannot be recycled, and not buying more plastic and plastic-packaged goods than we have to. Regardless of bag ban reversals, going zero waste is contingent on becoming fixers and makers and thinkers. And that is exactly what we are doing.
Not to mention that a lot less is coming inside our homes, because for once consumerism is discouraged. We’re told only to shop when necessary and only to buy what we need. This reaction is quite contrary to past disasters — namely September 11 — when shopping was championed as an American virtue. We can’t buy our way out of a pandemic, nor out of the plastic pollution crisis. The great number of Americans living on financial margins will use their stimulus money to pay the bills, not to go shopping for more stuff. To reduce and reuse is as much a necessity as it is a moral responsibility, and it’s not so optimistic as it is self evident that this time of duress will make reduce and reuse a more standard philosophy of living.
The coronoavirus has quite literally brought home the idea that change is in the hands of individuals. If we emerge back into the flurry of everyday life and our environmental-defense laws are worse for wear, the zero waste movement will have made gains in the limits of quarantine, where we learned to do more with less. And these are gains that lobbyists can’t undo.