(Photo: AnyLú Hinojosa-Peña)

Just going to a bakery, any self-service store, street markets, or inexpensive restaurant is enough to be witness (and accomplice) to the fact that, despite regulations against the use of plastic bags, they’re used without check.

Styrofoam, plastic cutlery, and other products are on the rise under the premise that it’s a material that protects people from Covid-19. But, it’s a false assumption that (in addition) harms the environment.

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Last January 1st, legislation banning single-use plastic bags went into effect in Mexico City (CDMX). This was a measure that, while beginning to yield results, was interrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic. However, at no time have the authorities suspended it.

Data from CDMX’s Department of Urban Services reports daily collection of 150 tons of disposable plastic, three times the 49.49 tons reported on average every day of 2018, according to the CDMX Solid Waste inventory published in mid-2019.

The false promise

Fearing an unknown disease that has paralyzed entire nations, many mistakenly believe that plastic (especially single-use plastic) is an alternative to avoid spreading the virus.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has reported that, according to various studies, the persistence of the virus on plastic surfaces of between 72 and 96 hours has been confirmed.

“In facing the unknown, the challenge was huge, especially due to the belief that plastics could ensure a decrease in the risk of infection. But no, plastic does not reduce the risk of Covid-19 infection. Plastic or any other material is just as likely not only to contain the virus but also to allow it to remain on its surface,” explains Lilian Guigue Pérez, Director General of Impact Assessment and Environmental Regulation at CDMX’s Environmental Secretariat (Sedema).

The virus lives on plastic

According to WHO and Sedema itself, the virus can remain active for two days on surfaces such as glass. It lives one day on fabric or wood and up to seven days on the outer surface of a surgical mask, for example.

While it is true that for reasons of hygiene and safety the law allows the use of plastic in the sale of food, bread, for example, is not considered in these instances. Therefore, as part of the changes that the “new normal” will bring, this product should be displayed as it was before the Covid-19 pandemic.

In fact, the official reported, talks (and warnings) have begun with the bakery industry and others to comply with the provisions contained in the City’s Solid Waste Act, which bans single-use plastics.

Guigue Pérez considered that, although the Covid-19 pandemic requires the use of single-use elements, such as gloves, gowns, and masks, it’s imperative we find the balance between human health and the environment.

This might interest you: Influenza, Covid-19, and acute respiratory problems: the perfect storm?

For Dr. Aura Elena Moreno, professor of Civil Engineering and Sustainable Technology at the Puebla Campus of Tecnológico de Monterrey, we are also facing “a plastic pandemic” globally because when awareness of its impact on the environment began, the health emergency arrived, “representing a different risk”.

What impact does this industry have? The United Nations (UN) reports that 300 million tons of plastic waste are produced every day in the world. It’s like filling a garbage truck every minute.

Responsible use and recycling

For the academic, this material hasn’t been used responsibly globally, which has had a significant impact on the loss of ecosystems.

According to the UN Environment Programme, it is estimated that if recycling actions aren’t tightened by 2050, there will be more trash than fish in the sea. This estimate had been made before the Covid-19 pandemic.

The international agency notes that only 10% of plastic waste is recycled in Latin America, and globally, an estimated 13 million tons of plastic waste is dumped in the oceans each year.

In Mexico City, authorities report that 76.3% of the plastic waste generated in city households is recycled. However, this is an activity that mostly falls on the shoulders of sanitation workers, who are responsible for separating garbage for sale in places dedicated to recycling, as this represents a source of economic aid for them.

A large proportion of so-called “volunteers” (who we literally see hanging from trucks and who are in charge of emptying the trash cans) don’t earn a salary.

Thus, collecting and selling plastic, PET, glass, and cardboard translates into an opportunity to earn a higher take-home income.

Once the pandemic subsides, Moreno considered, it will be necessary to study the effect that the health emergency will have on changing people’s habits “because if we find beaches full of garbage again, it will be as if we haven’t learned anything”.

Plastic is not the villain

In Mexico, the plastics industry accounts for more than $30 billion dollars, and 7 million tons are produced each year; 47% alone is for packaging, bottling, and wrapping, according to the National Association of the Plastics Industry (ANIPAC).

While the industry defends itself and claims that it is not the villain, citizen organizations criticize it saying that it has used the Covid-19 pandemic to its benefit, even though scientific evidence suggests that plastic does not reduce the risk of infection from the virus.

“The impact that (plastic) is having is not only attributable to the pandemic as such, but rather to the opportunism of the plastics industry taking advantage of the pandemic,” said Ornela Garelli Ríos, environmental activist and campaigner for Greenpeace Mexico.

She said that during these months, the plastics industry has encouraged the consumption of this material, contradicting legislation.

In CDMX, Sedema had to suspend surveillance visits to verify compliance with the standard in various establishments, resulting in non-compliance with the measure and the arrival of new actions, such as individual packaging of bread.

In Quintana Roo, for example, the Law on the Prevention, Integral Management, and Circular Economy of Waste against the use of single-use plastics should have come into effect in June, but because of the health emergency, the authorities chose to pause this legislation until further notice.

It was a decision, Garelli Ríos accused, that was made under pressure from the plastics industry.

Whereas, although Chiapas sought to halt legislation until 2021, single-use plastics have been banned in the state since this past June 20th.

The industry has also lost

“Plastic is not the hero of the movie, but it also wasn’t the villain when we wanted to crucify it. I believe that plastic is just an excellent ally,” said Almidir Torres, president of ANIPAC.

As a result of the Covid-19 Pandemic, he estimated that the industry he represents will have a loss of at least 10%.

For the businessman, the fight against environmental pollution does not stem from the very existence of the industry itself but from the lack of responsibility, as well, of the population and the authorities.

“The three groups are co-responsible for preventing impact,” he said.

As far as the authorities are responsible, Almidir Torres lamented that they don’t have proper waste disposal programs.

Lessons learned?

The Covid-19 pandemic will leave a long list of lessons in its wake. Social relationships, consumption, and eating habits, for example, will change.

Ornela Garelli considered that a “green new normal” should be committed to and the reuse and use of durable products and materials should be prioritized to avoid the negative environmental impacts of disposable products.

Purchasing a reusable bottle to carry water, using metal or bamboo straws and cutlery, always bringing a cloth bag and containers to carry purchases from self-service stores or street markets will make the difference.

Although the health emergency meant a couple of steps backward in the fight against single-use plastics, as their consumption increased, the city authorities will strengthen surveillance of compliance with regulations.

Single-use plastic: the other pandemic
(Photo: Courtesy of Greenpeace)

No fines

Communication campaigns that raise people’s awareness, rather than fines, will be the strategy to achieve their objectives, explained Lilian Guigue Pérez, general director of Sedema’s impact assessment and environmental regulation.

“I’m not interested in putting anyone in jail, nor in charging fines during such a difficult time. What interests me is that the use of plastic is reduced.”

These actions will prepare CDMX for the ban of disposables starting on January 1, 2021, as set out in the local Solid Waste Act.

From this date on, the marketing, distribution, and delivery of: plastic cutlery, beverage mixing sticks, plates, straws, cotton swabs, balloons, cups, lids, food trays, and tampon applicators that are wholly or partially made of plastic designed for single use will be banned.

The challenge is to stop polluting the planet as we were doing before the Covid-19 pandemic.

 

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