COVID-19 Demonstrates the Importance of Plastics

Over the span of just a few weeks, the world’s priorities have shifted significantly. COVID-19 has made it abundantly clear that not only do we still need oil and natural gas, but the world would not be able to tackle this threat without products that are made possible by these resources, including plastic.

Cities and states are changing course on banning single-use plastics during the COVID-19 pandemic, as are some stores that were moving away from plastic bags. While some of these initial efforts had been well-intentioned policies meant to make our lifestyles more sustainable, the current situation has brought to the forefront the important role plastics play in people’s daily lives.

For instance, many retailers are finding, single-use plastics can give more certainty to employees that they are handling objects that have not been contaminated. Further, plastics are a necessary component in many of the life-saving medical equipment that will become only more important in the coming weeks and months. Items like ventilators and even medical masks will require plastic for production. At such a time, it’s important to remember how important plastic is, and why the material should be thoughtfully examined for how it can continue to improve our lives. As Bloomberg recently reported:

“The virus plays right into the industry’s strong suits: disposability and hygiene.”

States and Cities Rethinking Plastic Bag Bans

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, states like New York and Maine are rethinking their plastic bag bans given the small likelihood that reusing items with the virus on them could increase transmission. New York State’s ban on plastic bags was meant to go into effect April 1, but officials recently announced that they will not enforce the ban until after May 15.

Likewise, Maine’s legislature has decided that it will not enforce the state’s plastic bag ban until next year over concerns that reusable bags may harbor more germs and could potentially spread COVID-19.

It’s not just municipalities and states that are rethinking their stance against single-use plastics. Companies like Starbucks and Tim Horton’s have announced that at this time, they will no longer refill reusable cups for customers, opting instead to only use disposable cups. And in Pennsylvania, local grocery retailers have even banned the use of reusable grocery bags or are requiring those customers to bag their own products as a safety precaution. As Weis Markets spokesman Dennis Curtain explained:

“It’s a temporary preventive measure designed to protect our customers and associates.”

Delaying these bans and instituting counter-bans may seem like overreactions, but as people are trying to socially distance themselves and be hyper vigilant against the spread of COVID-19, such precautions may make more sense. Experts like Jonathan Abraham, an assistant professor of microbiology at Harvard Medical School, explained why turning away from reusable products right now is a smart decision:

“When something is as transmissible as this you want to minimize all possibilities. It’s better to be extra careful than assume it’s overkill.”

Plastic Necessary for Medical Equipment

Of an even more crucial consideration at this time is how important plastics are for medical equipment. Among the most widely used items to protect both health care workers and individuals from the spread of COVID-19 are masks. The U.S. Department of Health estimates that over the course of 2020, health care workers will need 3.5 billion face masks. As manufacturers attempt to scale up production, they’re finding it difficult to source, or produce, the fine mesh of synthetic polymer fibers—made from plastic—that is a critical line of filtration for the mask. The Plastics Industry Association drew further attention to the other health care equipment reliant on plastic for production and safety:

“Single-use plastics can literally be the difference between life and death. Items such as IV bags and ventilator machines, which are of the utmost importance right now, have components made of single-use plastics. The single-use hospital gowns, gloves, and masks that protect our health care workers every day are also made of plastic. I would venture to say that every machine, piece of medical care equipment, hospital bed, examination scope and tool has a component made of plastic, most of which are molded to exacting tolerances, which is possible due to the resin and the machinery being used.”

Even those trying to do their part to address the shortage of medical equipment—particularly ventilators—realize the importance of plastic. Cristian Fracassi, a civil engineer with a PhD in polymer science, and Alessandro Romaioli, a mechanical engineer, used their expertise to begin 3-D printing of valves for ventilators in Italy. These are extremely important—the valve on the ventilator needs to be replaced for each patient, and while it may “look like a simple piece of plastic,” it’s a complex part.

Sustainability is a serious topic that should be approached thoughtfully. Unfortunately, too often plastics have been the target of animosity and banning plastics has been a central part of sustainability proposals. Given the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic, some of these considerations must be set aside to see plastic for how it can be responsibly used to keep our food safe and clean, protect us from the virus and deliver the life-saving medical care that so many will need.

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