The plastic industry has recently called for delaying or possibly even withdrawing recently adopted legislation on single-use plastics, on the basis of scientifically unfounded arguments linked to the Covid-19 pandemic.
For the plastic industry to mobilise fallacious ‘scientific’ arguments as well as to use delaying and blocking tactics to weaken EU legislation and its implementation is not a new practice. To use a life threatening pandemic that is affecting people across the world to protect their financial interests, that is new! It is also both irrelevant and scientifically unfounded.
Last year, the EU adopted one of the most supported pieces of legislation to respond to the growing pollution in the environment and the ocean by single-use plastics. In ongoing discussions to prepare guidelines for all Member States to implement this legislation, the plastic and packaging industry has been pushing to introduce delays and exemptions and water down the ambition of the measures on single-use plastics. Now, the industry is bringing arguments relating to COVID-19 to the mix. They argue to postpone the implementation, and even remove some of the new laws, claiming that single-use plastics are more hygienic, invoking in particular their role in the healthcare sector.
While plastic may have essential uses, notably in the health sector, none of those applications are covered by the EU single-use plastics laws. Indeed, the Directive on single-use plastics does not cover medical equipment and even foresees the explicit exclusion of any of the items listed that would be used for medical purposes. The European Commission clearly stated that deadlines for the implementation of the Directive have to be respected.
It is interesting to see that even in the health sector, efforts are growing towards reusable alternatives for respirators and face masks. The current stock scarcity many countries are having to deal with, proves that reusables could be a solution even for the health sector.
While some shops and chains have temporarily stopped accepting reusable cups and containers from consumers, with the underlying objective being to protect their employees as much as possible, overall single-use containers have not been proven to be safer than reusable alternatives. The virus can live on both for a certain period of time, but not necessarily for any longer on one than on the other. Recent studies have shown that the virus can stay active on plastics for up to 72 hours – longer than on many other materials.
In addition, single-use (plastic) packaging has often been transported and manipulated several times before reaching shelves and consumers.
The current situation confirms that Bring Your Own (BYO) reusable containers can only be a transition towards making reuse the norm and that infrastructures and systems for reusables, where the container goes back to a producer to be cleaned and possibly refilled, need to be systematised. But it certainly does not call for rushing back to single-use plastics.
Beyond the environmental impacts, if we are to look into the issue of single-use plastics and health, science is not supporting the industry’s case. Plastics have adverse impacts on health all along their lifecycle and there is growing evidence that plastic packaging contains a large amount of hazardous chemicals that migrate into the food and drinks we consume. The chronic exposure to those chemicals through plastic food packaging can lead to serious illnesses and impair our immune system, leaving us more vulnerable when a disease such as COVID-19 comes around.
The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted how little resilience there is in the way we currently produce, distribute and consume products and food. Delivering on an ambitious European Green Deal and making any recovery funding conditional on environmental and social criteria, will be essential in addressing our consumption and production behaviours.
It is high time we put people and the environment first in Europe and globally. Only an ambitious and timely implementation of the SUP Directive, as part of and together with the transition to a toxic free circular economy based on reuse systems and shorter supply chains, can make it happen.