Will the coronavirus change how we use plastic packaging?
“We need plastic” has not been a common refrain among consumers and retailers in recent times.
Yet as shoppers and retailers have had their attention shifted to surviving the coronavirus pandemic, there’s been a dramatic shift to foods packaged in plastics.
Retailers have replaced open bins with pre-packaged goods. Many stores no longer allow customers to bring their own bags in the store. Even the natural foods store is individually wrapping bagels in my neighborhood.
Why? Plastic packaging helps ensure food safety in a world panicked by a pandemic.
The truth is that the plastic debate has been stuck between naive extremes. On one side, all plastic is bad. On the other, all plastic use is endorsed because it’s profitable and convenient.
The truth is more complex.
Beyond plastics, there are few effective and inexpensive options for protecting the food supply. Plastic packaging also offers tremendous advantages in manufacturing and for display in the store.
Plastics do pollute the environment badly and take hundreds of years to decay. Without changes in plastics manufacturing and/or its use, estimates are that the oceans will be overrun by 2050.
Efforts to improve recyclability or make biodegradable substitutes are a long way from creating a profitable home-grown recycling industry. Recycling is so difficult that many off-shore destinations have started rejecting U.S. plastics.
Perhaps, we need to treat plastics as a public health issue. Let’s move the discussion away from the extremes and focus on how to responsibly make, use and dispose of/recycle plastics.
What would that mean? For one, it would mean arriving at a national consensus on the legitimate uses of the material. It would also mean increased funding and focus on recycling and the development of biodegradables. It may take a national effort subsidized by the federal government to make recycling work in the U.S.
The chaos in the market for plastics and alternatives has created more challenges than it has solved. The coronavirus pandemic makes it clear that society cannot win as long as this chaos rules. It’s time for change.
- Pre-bagged produce proves popular during pandemic – RetailWire
- FAQs on Plastics – Our World in Data
- Report investigates failure of recycling to address U.S. plastic waste problem (PIRG) – Plastics Today
- Plastic gets a do-over: Breakthrough discovery recycles plastic from the inside out – ScienceDaily
- Unavoidable technological advances in plastics recycling – Recycling Magazine
- Fast facts about plastic pollution – National Geographic
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Do you think consumers and retailers will look at plastic packaging any differently after the coronavirus pandemic has ended? What will it take to fix the nation’s plastic challenge going forward?