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Sustainability In The Age Of Coronavirus

by Brandi Parker on 03/24/2020 | 6 Minute Read

We often describe plastic as an epidemic, and about 8 million tons of it end up in our oceans each year. But now that we face a true pandemic in COVID-19 (coronavirus), we are shifting our ideas of how to live, and specifically how to be sustainable.

Even at the height of what I call Straw Rage of summer 2019, which led your co-workers, Facebook friends, and maybe your own family to swear-off usage of plastic straws, I’ve felt a healthy cynicism toward the anti-plastic bandwagon.

To be fair, I generally default to skepticism when any popular idea takes hold. But in this case, as someone with nearly 19 years working with food and beverage consumer packaged goods, I see a long-term error in ditching plastics that ensure food safety and protect against contamination risks, in favor of a seemingly more eco-friendly material. As a film, container, or a wrap, it’s hugely sustainable when you factor in food waste and pathogens as a concern. In the case of fresh fruits and vegetables, plastic storage or packaging can quadruple the shelf life of food. Despite its advantages, plastic has earned the reputation as our common enemy, causing brands to be reactive and remove plastic altogether.

Recently, Starbucks announced its new approach to sustainability in its stores — reusable cups — a remedy for the amount of waste created by its cafés. As of March 6, in response to the rapid spread of coronavirus, Starbucks canceled their reusable cups initiative to maintain sanitation. In the meantime, the company will return to single-use cups and trial compostable paper cups as a potential solution. While compostable cups are the stuff of material dreams, current barriers in technology to make the cups 100% compostable in addition to regional industrial compost infrastructure to process the waste, make the initiative a challenge to roll-out nationwide.

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As of January 2020, eight states have banned the use of plastic grocery bags. Environmentalists and legislators alike lobby for these restrictions to reduce plastic waste. However, when contagious pathogens are of the utmost concern, plastic bags take the cake for cleanliness over reusable grocery bags. In a 2018 study by the National Environment Health Association, they determined reusable bags to be transporters of infectious disease, spreading the highest amount of pathogens to the shopper’s hands, checkout stands, and the cashier’s hands among other surfaces during an average trip to the grocery store. It calls into question the need for supplies of single-use plastic bags as part of emergency preparedness in a pandemic. 

Another effective form of environmental sustainability comes down to consuming less. In the name of shrinking our individual, environmental footprints, we’re shifting culturally by renouncing our need to own more things and, instead, embracing flexible standards of access. As we adopt more nomadic, owner-less models of consumerism, how do we evolve services like ride-sharing apps, Airbnb, or Rent the Runway to account for the future of health and sustainability? Jumping into a shared Lyft to get to the other side of town and shopping consignment clothing are only two examples of the momentum we’ve gained in the pursuit of making more from less. The pandemic is upending how we’re thinking about everything, challenging our well-meaning ideas about using and buying less. While I don’t think ride-sharing would or should go away, I see how additional layers of scrutiny over sanitization will introduce complexity, challenge sustainability, and curb convenience.

Reusable materials nor shared spaces guarantee cleanliness. So, it makes sense that we would raise concerns about reuse. After all, we spent the better part of the last century developing ways to make our shared spaces as sanitary as possible. And, at times like these, when we find ourselves at the crossroads of safety and sustainability, the most environmentally friendly options aren't always the healthiest.

Historically, convenience led us to single-use items. Don’t do the dishes, use paper plates; don’t wash drinkware, use paper (or plastic) cups; don’t worry about the silverware, use plastic cutlery. Thankfully, society has started to shift away from this frivolous mindset in favor of reuse. But single-use items can’t be disposed of altogether. The fact is plastic has saved lives since its inception. When sanitization and illness rise to the level of a pandemic, single-use re-emerges not for convenience but safety.

There’s a rare, ancient example of a solution that is sustainable, single-use, and safeguards public health—bhar, the traditional Indian method of drinking chai with a single-use clay cup. For hundreds of years, people in Kolkata have made these all-natural cups for serving tea. Made out of clay from the Ganges river, the cups are thrown on the ground and crushed after use. But there are few examples like it elsewhere in the world.

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Beyond food and drink, single-use plastics have grown in importance in the medical industry for the same reasons. In an interview with National Geographic, Bridgette Budhlall, an engineer at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, stated, “Plastics for biomedical applications have many desirable properties, including low cost, ease of processing, and [ability] to be sterilized easily.”

In 2020, it’s nearly impossible to imagine reverting to a time when tubing and needles were cleaned and reused. Even in the pursuit of sustainable material use, it’s unlikely that we would want to entertain reuse or alternate materials to plastic when it comes to healthcare, out of fear that quality of care will decrease in both cleanliness and effectiveness.

As part of Pearlfisher’s approach to sustainable design, we created a Spectrum to encapsulate a range of possible solutions. On one end, we can design for Obsolescence (biodegradable or compostable items that leave no trace during their short life spans), whereas the other extreme explores designing for Eternal Life (durable and reusable items intended to outlast us in their long life spans). Apart from mapping materials strategies, this Spectrum serves as a reminder that neither side is inherently bad. Both life cycles are important in their own ways. 

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At the moment, however, a lot of the packaging we use in everyday life falls somewhere in the middle between these two aspirations at the center of the spectrum. Right now, we make the worst of single-use material within a ‘used today, here forever’ context. In the single-use space, it’s easier for us to design solutions for Obsolescence in simple applications-like drinking cups-with current technology and material resources. However, when it comes to medical devices, shelf-stable food, or other items that are single-use and require a high degree of sanitization and protection, plastic is still the best material. Technology for superior materials simply isn’t accessible for mass-production just yet. 

The way we problem-solve and implement change will be incremental.

While I agree that the problem of plastics washing up in our waterways and lying for millennia in our landfills is a huge problem, I can’t ignore the issues of public health and food safety. It’s easy to think that sustainability is a material problem—to pinpoint plastic as our singular enemy and make this our sole focus. However, in doing so, we would be disregarding behavior or health as critical parts in the equation at-large. 

Of course, it’s productive—and, yes, nice—to feel like we have some control or a part to play in sustainability by refusing straws, for example. However, we must remember that fixing or improving sustainability for life on the planet is not just fixing the oceans. The future of sustainability will succeed not because of isolated or blanketed remedies, rather a holistic approach for healthier life in its many forms.