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Sustainable Packaging 2020

Coronavirus: a disaster for the war on single-use plastic

iStock / Getty Images Plus / Artem Tryhub

Jo Royle

Managing Director, Common Seas

Coronavirus is nothing short of a disaster for the war on single-use plastic; and vital progress in raising awareness of the plastic pollution crisis has been lost.


As consumers and businesses focus on combating COVID-19, efforts to protect the environment by embracing sustainable, reusable alternatives have been side-lined. Vital progress in raising awareness of the plastic pollution crisis has been lost.

Wholesale regression to single-use plastic

The significance of the emergency is matched only by the scale of its impact. The hospitality sector’s shift to single-use plastics has been extensive. Coffee shops rejecting reusable mugs is an all-too familiar sight. Drinks once served, hygienically, in glass are now being served in plastic. We now eat on plastic rather than china, using plastic cutlery – throwing it all away in a plastic bag.

Some authorities have taken regressive measures; South West Australia has weakened its ban on single-use straws and cutlery; the UK has paused a charge on plastic bags for online deliveries; Scotland’s deposit-return scheme has been delayed.

Environmental disaster, health hazard

The rise of single-use PPE during the pandemic is only adding to the problem. The irony is that plastic pollution also represents a long-term health emergency. It is toxic not only to the ocean, but also to our health, and that of global ecosystems, not to mention threatening local economies and livelihoods.

The crisis is not going away soon. As holidaymakers try to make the most of the summer, many hospitality businesses have turned to disposable containers to help stay afloat during the pandemic.

In Greece, the Maldives and Indonesia, we have seen the damage plastic pollution already does to local ecosystems and economies are unable to cope. In a normal summer, the Greek island of Paros already sees a 350% increase in waste. We are committed to helping Paros become the first single-use plastic-waste-free island in the Mediterranean. We cannot risk COVID-19 undermining the vital progress Paros, and other islands, have made.

Safe approaches to reusables

With basic hygiene, reusables are perfectly safe; 125 scientists from 19 countries agree. However, fear and misinformation are widespread and this is a confusing and uncertain time for businesses. They urgently need clear advice and support on single-use plastic.

That is why we have created a guide, ‘COVID-19 and Reusables’, which helps local hospitality businesses navigate new regulations, and offers practical recommendations to help them avoid resorting to single-use plastics during the pandemic. Our guide proves that, with the right measures, hotels and restaurants can employ reusables safely, and that accepting them does not need to be complicated.

A crucial time for decision-making

More positively, we can take advantage of this time as an opportunity to develop new, sustainable systems, based on contactless transactions, for example. We could even take the chance to drop single-use plastic – such as disposable straws – altogether.

Under cover of coronavirus, single-use plastic is making a sly comeback. Even in a pandemic, we must continue to kick our addiction.

Jo Royle (@Jo_Royle) is Managing Director of Common Seas (@CommonSeas), a not-for-profit enterprise that researches, designs and implements practical project-based solutions to our global plastic pollution crisis.

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