Can we social distance from single- use plastics?

As coronavirus bears down on society, the use of single-use plastics has stepped up. Panic buying in the wake of the virus means demand for hand sanitiser, antibacterial wipes and much more besides (toilet roll) has rocketed. Although the plastic revolution since Blue Planet 2 has put emphasis on reuse and recycling, the threat of a global pandemic has shifted these concerns to the back of people’s minds.

But it is not just packaging where this demand for single-use plastics has soared. Plastics are ubiquitous in healthcare, enabling time consuming and costly sterilisation processes to be replaced with versatile polymers that can be used in an array of hygienic medical equipment such as masks, aprons, wipes, bags, cannulas etc. In other words, single-use plastic has been a global life saver and its role is becoming increasingly prevalent throughout this pandemic. So should we, as has been proposed in various avenues, do away with plastic? The medical practice in particular highlights that we cannot, instead we require a rethink surrounding their material value. Recycling of plastics in the UK is currently riddled with problems – much of it is shipped abroad, incinerated or rejected due to contamination.

Obviously, not all plastics are suitable for reuse (particularly contaminated medical waste), so recycling routes such as chemical recycling then come into play. With the right infrastructure, we can ensure that these classically “unrecyclable” plastics can become part of this circular process.

For more info see Dr Helen Holmes and Mike’s recent article as well as our interdisciplanary “One Bin” project, which aims to standardise plastic waste collection.

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