Sustainable Focus: The return to plastic after Covid

Welcome to this column within our broader sustainability section which focuses on what retail is doing to address the issues in its industry.

 Today an analysis of the role of plastic in the Covid 19 crisis brought to you by Retail Insider with Clipper and Give Back Box

In the past few years, really positive moves have been made to persuade consumers to dispense with some of the more excessive forms of packaging and wrappings that they had perhaps considered essential. The direction of travel has all been about moving away from single-use plastic towards reusable wrapping. When it comes to food there is the even more revolutionary idea of dispensing with packaging altogether and taking your own jars to refill with rice, lentils and pasta.

Clothing has not been quite so advanced in its thinking and the plastic clothes hanger aka the plastic straw of the fashion industry continues to be a problem.

However, the pandemic and resulting fears over germs and hygiene generally is threatening even all the forward-thinking change that this movement has engendered to date.

The pioneering refill company Unpackaged recently tweeted “one of the biggest challenges in promoting sustainable behaviours is to break old habits and adopt new ones. Once people return to using plastic bags, the practice becomes normalised again” and it appears that the plastics industry has decided that Covid-19 means the time is ripe for a rear-guard action to swing the pendulum back away from plastic being ‘bad’ round to plastic being ‘good’.

Already in early March, Starbucks announced that its ‘bring your own cups’ scheme was being abandoned – ostensibly for the time being only but who knows when it will be reinstated. This move shows how much retailers are having to take employees’ health into consideration. From the customers’ perspective a clean cup brought from home should be the very safest way to consume takeaway coffee but for the staff the reassurance of taking a disposable cup from a large sterile stack has outweighed everything else.

On the other side many markets and greengrocers, traditionally places which do not use excess packaging but sell in open boxes or scoops, have taken to shrink-wrapping everything in sight so that customers feel happy handling them. And even supermarkets who have often led the move away from packaging are bowing to the common perception that something in a plastic bag will be freer of germs than something that is not.

This thinking will no doubt permeate the clothing industry. Whereas its use of wrappings have been necessary for keeping items clean and tidy this could be extended to excessive layers of packaging being provided as a protective measure against the spread of viruses. When non-food markets with clothing begin to open up can we expect to see every jacket and dress wrapped in plastic where once they might have been left unpackaged?

Individually wrapped clothes on shelves – could this be the future?

Early on in the lockdown the 5p charge on bags was inexplicably waived by some retailers when one might have thought bringing a bag from home would have been by far the safer option. But it is not to be wondered that at this very anxious time, retailers of all kinds only have one thing on their minds and that is to get highly-nervous consumers back through the door into their premises but so many of these actions are paradoxical. There is really no evidence that wrapping something in plastic makes it safer or that the virus particularly spreads on open food or other goods especially soft surfaces such as clothing.

The inevitable run on bottled water during the panic-buying seen at the beginning of the Covid-19 crisis is typical of the fear that anything that is used in common – like tap water – must be less safe than a vacuum-packed bottle despite the fact that water comes through a tap via a mechanised filtration system while multiple people may have touched the plastic bottle of water. But in a world where people cling to absolutes for comfort and can no longer assess the probability of risk sensibly, plastic is back on the good guy side.

Of course, the truth is that plastic was never inherently bad, it is a very useful material and reusable plastic is a versatile, safe and clean option. But the danger for the world after this virus has been defeated is that the single-use variety climbs back into favour by the back door ensuring that Covid-19s legacy for the planet really will be long lasting and toxic.

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