The Current·Q&A

COVID-19 pandemic should not interrupt efforts to curb plastic waste, advocacy group says

The zero-waste movement should not take a back seat during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Environmental Defence. Ashley Wallis, plastics program manager for the environmental advocacy group, says the pandemic has increased people's reliance on single-use plastics, but it doesn't have to be that way.

Majority of Canadians still want to ban single-use plastics, according to Environmental Defence

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced last June the government was getting ready to prohibit the production and sale of single-use plastics in Canada. But that effort is now likely delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press)

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The zero-waste movement should not take a back seat during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Environmental Defence in Toronto.

Ashley Wallis, plastics program manager for the environmental advocacy group, says the pandemic has increased people's reliance on single-use plastics and made some people wary of the health risks of reusable products.

Wallis told The Current guest host Mark Kelley the majority of Canadians still want to ban single-use plastics — even in light of the current public health situation.

"I do not think that we can allow the pandemic, our current public health crisis, to make existing environmental crises worse," she said.

Here is part of their conversation.

There was this momentum to ban single-use plastic items. Clearly, that's not the case now during the pandemic. How do you see this setback?

The pandemic has obviously brought new challenges. Single-use plastic use is up. The International Solid Waste Association estimates that we're using about 250 to 300 per cent more single-use plastic now than we were before the pandemic.

But Canadians are actually still really supportive of a ban on single-use plastics. Recent polling suggests that 86 per cent want to see the government move ahead with bans.

So I think there's a way for us to continue to take action on plastic pollution but also be conscious of the COVID context.

Is the plastic industry using the pandemic as an opportunity to make a comeback?

I think definitely, yeah. I think "never let an opportunity pass you by" seems to be the motto over there.

The plastics industry has definitely been pushing this false narrative that single-use plastics are the hygienic option. Less than a week after the pandemic was announced by the World Health Organization, the U.S. Plastics Industry Association was lobbying federal officials to roll back or block expected bans and stuff on single-use plastics.

But in late June ... there was a statement that came out from a number of doctors and scientists and public health professionals that said reuseables are actually safe to use during the pandemic, as long as you're following basic hygiene. And I think one of the things they point out that's really relevant is that disposable items can actually present similar challenges to reusable items.

So that means that just because something is disposable, doesn't mean it hasn't been coughed on or touched by someone. There's no reason to believe that that broccoli head at the grocery store wrapped in cellophane hasn't been touched by other people.

I think pushing this idea that we need more plastic bags and cups and straws in the fight against COVID has been detrimental, and it's unfortunate that that message came out so early in the pandemic, when we were all very sensitive to any information, because we were obviously scared.

Municipalities have brought in bans on single-use plastics. Vancouver, for one, has banned foam cups, takeout containers, and as of April, plastic straws and disposable cutlery were supposed to be available only by request.

But the city's now said it won't enforce this bylaw during the pandemic. It was concerned about putting extra pressure on businesses, especially restaurants, during the pandemic.... Is that also an obstacle for you in your pursuit?

I think there's this idea that doing the environmentally responsible thing is too expensive, or it's something we can do after we deal with other issues. But there is a very clear link between environmental health and human health. And I do not think that we can allow the pandemic, our current public health crisis, to make existing environmental crises worse.

The plastic pollution crisis has been growing for decades, and it will continue to exist long after we have dealt with the pandemic. And I think that we need to make sure that we're not giving ourselves a free pass to trash the environment while we deal with the pandemic. There are responsible ways to deal with both situations in parallel.

A used protective face mask is seen discarded on the ground in Vancouver in May 2020. Protective face masks along with other personal protective equipment have become the new litter being found on the ground during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press)

I was struck, Ashley, this weekend, walking on the beach in here in Toronto on Lake Ontario and looking down, and often you'll see plastic bottles floating on the lake. But now I'm seeing latex gloves and masks, PPE — personal protective equipment.

It's in the water. I'm seeing it on the sidewalks. I'm seeing it everywhere. What impact is that having?

That statistic I stated earlier that our single-use plastic use has increased about 250 to 300 per cent since the pandemic started, that does include PPE as well. I think that when we talk about needing to ban unnecessary single-use plastics, really, our focus is on things like bags and cups and straws.

But I am concerned about the increasing amount of PPE litter that I'm seeing in the street. I have a small child. We go to the park and I'm like, "Don't touch that disposable mask that's lying on the ground."

I'm using a cloth mask right now. My family is using cloth masks. But for folks that are using disposable, I do encourage them to dispose of them correctly and make sure that they are being thrown away.

There's a case for using single-use plastics for personal protective equipment, says Ashley Wallis of Environmental Defence. But that heightens the need to restrict the use of plastics in other parts of life, she said. (Jane Robertson/CBC)

Because this, the use of PPE, we may be seeing this for a long time to come.

I think we need to make decisions about where we are using plastic most responsibly, and PPE is definitely a place where you can make more of a case for plastics being useful or necessary.

I think if anything, that should encourage us to move more quickly to greatly restrict the unnecessary plastic items we're using in our lives, and to do a better job across the board of collecting and managing these materials that we can't avoid.

Written by Mary Vallis. Produced by Lindsay Rempel. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

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