Holly Kaufmann

In the latest edition of our ongoing series, US-based environmental advisor Holly Kaufman asks whether plastic is a healthy choice.

The server at the bakery near my house used to pluck out a muffin for me after reaching into the glass case with a square of waxed paper. Now the woman behind the counter dons a pair of clear vinyl gloves to grab my treat, takes my money, tosses the gloves in the bin, and repeats the process for the next customer. When I asked why she put on a new pair of gloves for every transaction, she said that the owner required it because of COVID.

Even at the local farmers’ market, where the entire neighbourhood flocks every Sunday to stock up on organic fruits and vegetables, juice samples are now doled out in tiny plastic jars. My suggestion to the vendor to use recycled paper tasting cups was not well received. She said, “With COVID, customers don’t feel comfortable with paper. They want plastic.”

And this is the myth we must dispel – that plastic somehow makes us safer.

In both of these stories, plastic was not only unnecessary, it was less sanitary. The only reason that plastic was used is because people believe that plastic protects them more than – in these cases – waxed paper or a paper cup. Plastic gloves have even replaced the more effective hand washing with soap and water. Touching money, a doorknob or your face with gloves on defeats the purpose of wearing the gloves – it contaminates them. Even the World Health Organization (WHO) says that, “The use of gloves when not indicated represents a waste of resources and does not contribute to a reduction of cross-transmission. It may also result in missed opportunities for hand hygiene.”

Before COVID, the world was already drowning in discarded single-use plastic. Since COVID, reports from around the world show that massive amounts of ‘disposable’ protective equipment like gloves, masks and ‘hygienic’ coverings and casings of all kinds are clogging sidewalk drains and washing into rivers and oceans, all because of the myth that these items are more sanitary than washable, reusable and refillable ones.

In the US, plastics associations and companies have claimed ‘an abundance of caution’ as the reason to reinstate widespread use of single-use plastic bags. But were we really operating out of an abundance of caution, we would avoid using plastic wherever possible. Plastic is a terrific vector for disease, as pathogenic microbes can accumulate on floating plastic and bring gastroenteritis, septicemia, and other maladies to new places and people. Plastic exposes us to a stew of petrochemicals that is harmful to human and ecological health, and plastics are a significant and growing contribution to climate change. Human health impacts are particularly acute in frontline communities near fossil fuel extraction sites, refineries, and plastic and petrochemical manufacturing plants, all of which emit toxic and carcinogenic chemicals into the air, water and soil.

The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in a surge of production, consumption, and ‘disposal’ of ‘use-once’ personal protective equipment (PPE) including face masks, gloves, and disinfectant wipes, all of which contain plastic. Globally, estimates are that 65 billion gloves and 129 billion masks have been used monthly during the COVID-19 pandemic, or nearly 3 million face masks per minute, many of which fall out of pockets and trash cans and otherwise contribute plastic pollution. PPE waste from the medical sector is generally tightly regulated and specialized waste management systems often involve waste sterilization and incineration. This tsunami of publicly generated, potentially infectious PPE waste is a new phenomenon with no waste collection and management strategy. It has also spawned illegal trade in used, dirty gloves.

So how do we stay safe from COVID and minimize the ill-effects of copious plastic use?

It’s time to dispel the fantasy of plastic. Let’s wash our hands well with soap and water instead of using plastic gloves; wear well-fitting multi-layer cloth masks as appropriate or re-use our N95 masks as many times as possible*; and dispense with the wipes and other plastic-containing gear that is causing us and the rest of the planet more harm than health.

Holly Kaufman is an environmental advisor with over three decades of experience designing and managing projects that integrate social and economic concerns into environmental protection and restoration. She served on President Clinton’s delegation to the UN climate treaty negotiations, including as head of bilateral diplomacy at the US Department of State and of the climate change and national security portfolio at the US Department of Defense. For more information, see www.EnvironmentStrategies.com and LinkedIn, and follow her @Holly_Kaufman.

*Author’s note: With the advent of Omicron and the need to wear N95 or similar synthetic masks instead of cloth (i.e., KN95 and KF94), note that these masks can be worn at least five times if not in a health care setting (i.e., working in a hospital), or until the seal is no longer snug or they are torn, dirty or damp. Store them between wearings in a paper bag as plastic retains moisture, and keep them in the bag to dispose of them in the trash bin to prevent other people from coming into contact with them. As these and surgical masks can be hard to come by, are expensive and contain plastic fibers, the more reuse, the better. (See How Long Can You Wear An N95, KN95 or KF94 Before Replacing It?) or read this article.