Plastic-free amid a pandemic? It might not be possible, but it's worth a try
Risk of transmission via objects is low, says doctor who urges reusable container use
The very first day of Vanessa Bromley's vow to use less plastic for an entire month did not go well, all because of a seemingly innocuous trip out for Canada Day ice cream with her two kids.
"Of course, here we are, plastic spoons in our hand. Like, great, we failed the first day of Plastic Free July," laughed the Bay d'Espoir mom, teacher and owner of the online zero waste shop Bare Goods NL.
Bromley took the setback in stride, knowing that her decision to take the Plastic Free July plunge — an environmental challenge that began in Australia in 2011 and has since become a global movement — comes during particularly challenging times for anyone looking to ditch the immortal material.
Since pandemic measures reached her corner of Newfoundland's south coast, Bromley has had to adjust her shopping routines, with stores in her area banning reusable shopping and produce bags. She also noted some produce has been swathed in plastic, doing triple duty as a sanitary measure, a life-extender —and an environmental irritant.
"Our plastic consumption, in particular for grocery shopping, has been up tremendously," she said.
"It's actually a struggle. I've had to accept that it's basically impossible to be perfect, when it comes to looking after the environment right now."
No goodbye for bags … yet
Bromley is just one eco-conscious consumer feeling the crush of COVID-19-related measures that have seen efforts to scale back single-use plastic stall, both in the province and around the world.
Newfoundland and Labrador was set to bring in a plastic bag ban on July 1, but amid a wave of COVID-19 cases on April 6, Premier Dwight Ball pushed that date back to October 1. Some shopping chains, such as Dominion, banned reusable bags for a period and then reinstated their use, while others have hit pause on reusable programs indefinitely, from bringing your own coffee cup to Starbucks to reusable containers at Bulk Barn.
The federal government has similarly stated that its effort to ban some single-use plastics has been delayed due to the pandemic, although it hopes to keep on its target of bringing in legislation in 2021.
While much of this stems from good intentions to protect the public from coronavirus transmission, Calgary ER physician Dr. Joe Vipond said measures like reusable bag bans are based more in a desire to try to control an unpredictable situation than scientific fact.
We can't just ignore one crisis because another crisis is going on. This isn't going away.- Joe Vipond
Evidence is mounting that transmission of the virus from surfaces is a lot harder than first thought, as such scientifically sound sources such as the World Health Organization and The Lancet have published papers to that effect.
"It's a challenging topic, I think, for some grocery stores because they want to feel like they're doing something, and yet this doesn't seem to be helping, in my mind," Vipond, who is also the interim president of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment, told CBC.
"I think we just need to recognize that washing our hands is much more important than not reusing things."
A mindset shift?
Vipond was one of the more than 100 scientists and medical professionals who added their signatures to a public letter this spring, stating that reusable containers and bags can be used safely during a pandemic, as long as they're washed with soap and water.
It also encouraged contact-free systems, like getting customers to bag their own groceries — policies that are becoming more commonplace as the pandemic continues. But Bromley said she's felt a lingering stigma about bringing hers back to the store as part of her Plastic Free July plans.
"It's kind of still frowned upon," she said. "So I do feel like it's been crushed a little, but, you know, maybe we'll get back there soon, hopefully."
Despite the very real threat COVID-19 poses, Vipond urged people not to forget that the pandemic doesn't displace other problems looming over our collective future, such as climate change and single-use plastics.
"I think we've all been kind of shocked by entering into this existential crisis known as COVID, and everybody feels their mortality, right? Pretty rare that we have this experience that we are threatened ourselves, but we actually have two or three even other existential crises ongoing at the same time," he said.
"We can't just ignore one crisis because another crisis is going on. This isn't going away."
Ditch (some) of the plastic PPE
The world can feel like a plastic-swaddled place of late. There are the ubiquitous plastic dividers surrounding cashiers, pin pads covered in Saran Wrap, and boxes of disposable gloves placed by the doors of many retail shops.
While some of those are necessary sanitary measures, as someone who has dealt with COVID-19 patients, Vipond feels pretty strongly about that last one.
"I think the thing that drives health-care workers the battiest is people wearing gloves out in public, disposable gloves," he said.
"I only wear gloves when I'm in a COVID room, and I use those gloves and then i come right out and I take them off and I wash my hands right away. I'm never wearing gloves for more than five or 10 minutes at a time. Whereas we're seeing people walking around stores, wearing their gloves, and then touching their faces and grabbing their phones."
Handwashing is far more effective, he said, and can be done with plastic-free bar soap to the same effect as its bottled counterpart. He also urged people to choose cloth masks over disposable ones in their day-to-day public activities.
"The general public is walking around in a situation where their exposure risk is much much lower and their concentrations they're being exposed to are much much lower. So I personally am very comfortable wearing a cloth mask in public and washing it frequently at home," he said.
Time to think
Back in Bay d'Espoir, Bromley said one unexpected benefit to all her recent downtime — as a teacher, she's been out of the classroom since March — has been the space to figure out an environmental way forward.
"We've been able to focus on making better choices, because I actually have the time to sit and think, and focus on some environmental things that I haven't really had the time to focus on before," she said.
She opened up her online store right before the pandemic hit, delaying her plans for a retail space or pop-up shops. She hopes that will eventually come to fruition, but she's taking her own advice and trying to make small changes toward larger progress that will hopefully outlast the pandemic.
"Pick one thing that you feel like your family can tackle," she said.
"Life gets in the way. COVID may get in the way. You really don't know what's going to happen."