Opinion: From environmental villain to pandemic hero — plastic is back, for now

Kathy Hoekstra

During the height of the Flint water crisis, CNN introduced us to Gina Luster, her 7-year-old daughter, and 13-year-old niece. The network’s in-depth profile described the family’s physical devastation from the city’s lead-contaminated water and their daily lifeline: bottled water.

By CNN’s count, this family of three depended on 151 bottles of water a day to meet their most basic needs — drinking, cooking, bathing and hygiene — 16.9 ounces at a time. 

Multiply by 1,600 days and 30,000 homes, and roughly seven billion bottles of water helped 100,000 affected residents make it through the bulk of the crisis.

Today, bottled water has resurfaced as a lifeline for Flint residents now caught in the coronavirus pandemic and still can’t count on their tap water for drink, much less hand-washing.

Bottled water was also the government’s go-to when high lead levels recently showed up in Newark, New Jersey’s water. The same is true for victims of hurricanes, earthquakes, floods, forest fires — and the emergency responders — when Mother Nature wreaks havoc on municipal water supplies.

The uncomfortable truth to environmental groups however, is that these billions of life-saving bottles of water are made of plastic.

While unfortunate for the so-called zero-waste movement which aims to eliminate the use of single-use plastics and their role in pollution, such crises repeatedly underscore the important role plastics play in emergencies.

A recent national poll found bottled water is one of the most important items to have on hand when it comes to disaster preparedness. 70 percent of families said bottled water is among the top three most important items — second only to canned food at 71%. (And nearly double the preference, by the way, of toilet paper.)

The coronavirus pandemic has been no exception, as 61% of families bought bottled water when self-quarantining started in their states — a number that jumped to 75% among 18-34-year olds.

The pandemic has also brought back demand for another oft-vilified single-use plastic: grocery bags.

Eight states and numerous cities have banned plastic bags altogether, or tacked on fees or taxes as a way to encourage the use of reusable shopping bags.

Worry that reusable bags could carry the coronavirus between homes and grocery stores, however, has led several states to either suspend their plastic bag bans, impose new bans on reusable bags, lift plastic bag fees, and in the District of Columbia, suspend enforcement of its five-cent-per-plastic bag tax.

Eight states and numerous cities have banned plastic bags altogether, or tacked on fees or taxes as a way to encourage the use of reusable shopping bags, Hoekstra writes.

We’re also seeing a pandemic-driven resurgence in single-use plastics for fresh food packaging for longer shelf life at stores and in homes.

The pandemic is stoking particular concern throughout Europe where a sweeping single-use plastics ban is set to take effect next summer. According to Politico, “In supermarkets across the Continent, buns, apples and avocados are smothered in plastic wrap — and people worried about catching a deadly disease don't care.”

It’s likely that the least-contested sector for single-use plastic products is in health care—especially during a pandemic. Gloves, masks and face shields, catheters, medicine bags, IV tubes syringes, and other medical equipment are critical to medical providers and patients.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has even deemed workers who produce single-use plastics for packaging as “essential critical infrastructure” during the COVID-19 response for their part in preventing the contamination or supporting the "continued manufacture of food, water, medicine, and other essential products.”

We’ll not know how long single-use plastic’s return to prominence will last until the pandemic finally wanes. Its opponents have sounded the alarm of surging plastic waste amid halted municipal recycling services and stridently criticized what they consider industry-driven efforts to upend legislative progress to eliminate single-use plastics altogether.

One thing is clear, however. While the important work must continue toward restoring and preserving our oceans and environment, we must also recognize that something as socially and politically disfavored as single-use plastics may be key to surviving COVID-19 and future disasters.

Kathy Hoekstra is a Michigan-based communications writer.