Progress made in recycling turned on its head since the pandemic started

Before the start of the outbreak, countries and retailers were making some progress on banning plastic bags, shifting away from single-use plastic, which ends up sitting in the ocean, to paper or reusable products. Some retail chains had already banned the sale of plastic bags.

But now those in charge have rolled back those bans on plastic bags in fear that reusable products will spread disease. Many retailers are banning customers from bringing reusable bags. And municipalities are scaling back recycling operations due to health concerns.

The surge in single-use plastic is a major blow to the fight against plastic pollution, which is projected to increase by 40% in the next decade, according to a report from the World Wildlife Fund.

The problem is especially apparent in the restaurant industry and its increased reliance on food delivery services. Many restaurants, even those that were curbing plastic waste prior to the pandemic, are not limiting the amount of plastic involved in takeout orders.

However, it is not just the restaurant industry. The food industry in general has had to change plans, especially those serving fresh food. On a recent trip to Cape Town a visit to the business lounge revealed every serving, portion or edible item was wrapped in some form or other in single portions, whereas before it was mostly served in a buffet environment. The majority was presented in rigid plastic containers and plastic bags while the hot foods were served in aluminium foil containers with a cardboard lid. Every single piece of packaging was turfed in a general waste bin once used. There was no attempt to offer recycling options at all.

As our stay progressed this theme continued. I was impressed with one of the large retailers who offered you utensils made of wood rather than plastic to eat your takeaway food, although they were wrapped in plastic. Of course they were single use because nobody wants to reuse a stained piece of wood, but at least they are biodegradable.

I am no expert on whether the virus is transferrable via plastic or wood – there has been no mention of it as far as I am aware although, metal is supposedly a culprit – but surely there could be more proactivity to setup recycling containers that could be designed so that a third party would not have to handle your rubbish, whether it be in the business lounge or in the general areas of the airport. The government has banned all eating – your own and any served by the airline – while in flight (imagine all the jobs lost by this decision) so there will be more refreshments consumed in the airport buildings.

The argument might be that they are aesthetically not pleasing but we all have to be understanding and considerate during these times. The majority of us will not be aware whether food grade packaging is reusable or recyclable, unless it says so on the packaging. In a home situation we can control our recycling beliefs or not, but in a public space at least give us the opportunity to contribute to saving the planet. It should be mandatory and imagine the business and employment opportunities that could arise while we all feel morally good about ourselves.