Plastic: a protector or polluter?

The industrial halt caused by the Covid-19 has been deemed as beneficial to the environment and numerous activists believe that the implications of lockdowns across the world have aided wildlife and habitats. However, the effects of the pandemic on the plastic industry are being overlooked, and fears over a reset of time in this industry are beginning to emerge. 

As the pandemic rages on across the world, institutions and governments are making instantaneous decisions as a stimulus to the myriad of problems being faced by the world community. One such hasty decision has been in regard to the use of plastic bags. As a measure to avoid contact between people, governments are lifting bans on plastic products due to their versatility, affordability and durability. As states such as California and New York in the USA, Tamil Nadu in India and the whole of the United Kingdom lift such bans, the prevalence of single-use plastic has started sky-rocketing. Packaging in plastic is being preferred because it is disposable and hence, arguably more hygienic than reusable bags and packaging. The constraints in the supply chain of reusable bags have proven that in such unprecedented times, plastic- the bedrock of medical equipment- can actually be a protector of the people. 

The recycling industry is also undergoing a stress test as workers are unable to collect the plastic littered on the streets and supply it to recycling factories. Furthermore, advisories asking citizens to not use reusable materials are being released in various parts of the world. San Francisco, the hub of reusable bags, which once considered them as ‘totems’ of the society, has outlawed these bags completely. Environmentalists are growing wary of this situation, and although one can agree that plastic has become indispensable currently, its long term impacts can be shattering for the environment. As many fear that Covid-19 may soon become a part of our daily lives, the burgeoning pandemic can potentially lead to an exponential growth in the usage of plastic. Activists are seeing their push for sustainability being thrown out of the window as personal health concerns topple environmental concerns. 

After decades, when it seemed as though the use of plastics would finally start plummeting, the debate between the pertinent use of plastic versus its long-term effects has resumed once again. The current global health crisis, however, has imparted plastic with an edge this time. Moreover, plastic now serves as the biggest impediment to circular economies-based on recycling and reusing products- which have become imperative in the present day and age. Claims that the virus lasts longer on plastic surfaces and pleas stating that reusable bags can be washed and are therefore hygienic have fallen on deaf ears. The linear-use and throw economic model that the use of plastic propagates can prove to be detrimental to nature. Spiralling oil prices have made plastic cheaper and pending economic struggle, single-use plastic circulation is on the rise. 

With this resurgence of plastic in our daily lives, finding solutions towards sustainability, even during a pandemic, is essential. The most prominent solution to this issue has been the incorporation of plastic into the circular economy. Research and development in the recycling sector can generate methods to recycle all types of plastics, thus allowing for plastic to serve solely as a protector. While the idea seems far-fetched, it is a long-term solution that could be integral to sustainable living. Imminent solutions could include spreading awareness that reusable bags are actually hygienic and promoting corporations to use recycled plastics. 

For now the world faces another dilemma, is plastic a polluter or a protector?

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