I drastically reduced the waste I produced, in particular cutting down on single-use plastics (no more straws in my G&Ts).
The global response extended beyond individual action. The European Union ("EU") published the Single-Use Plastics Directive 2019/904 ("SUP Directive")in June 2019 in order to reduce the impact of certain plastic products on the environment and on human health.
The SUP Directive focuses on the ten most commonly found single-use plastics and plastic-containing fishing gear, which together account for 70% of all marine litter items. It establishes product categories:-
- Single-use plastic products for which suitable alternatives exist;
- Single-use plastic products for which suitable alternatives are not yet widely available;
- Products which are already covered by existing EU Legislation; and
- Other single-use plastic products.
The measures which apply to each category range from bans on certain products to the implementation of economic incentives to decrease consumption.
The SUP Directive can be viewed as a positive step towards the reduction of plastic production.
The effect of COVID-19
The crusade on plastic has been disrupted by the outbreak of COVID-19. In March, reusable cups were temporarily banned from some coffee shops, including Starbucks. In April, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs confirmed that the ban on plastic straws, stirrers and cotton buds would be delayed by six months. There has been an increase in the production of plastic in order to manufacture medical protective equipment including masks, gloves and aprons. Now, the reopening of the hospitality sector requires precautionary measures to be taken to ensure the cleanliness of the establishment. Some restaurants will opt to use single-use cups, cutlery and table covers to make their customers feel safe.
The use of plastic has become synonymous with hygiene, health and safety.
Plastic: friend or foe?
But how rational is the linking of single-use plastic with better health and safety?
Evidence demonstrates that COVID-19 is primarily spread through inhaling droplets transmitted by air rather than through contact with surfaces. Where contact with surfaces is concerned, scientific studies have shown that coronaviruses survive longer on plastic surfaces in comparison with other materials.
These findings suggest that the replacement of reusable glasses and cutlery (provided these are disinfected by thorough washing) with single-use alternatives is not necessarily a more hygienic solution. Indeed, in June over 100 scientists published a letter stating that reusable containers do not increase the chance of virus transmission and are safe to use during the COVID-19 pandemic if basic hygiene is employed.
The new normal
As a result of COVID-19, there has been a rapid change in the public perception of plastic. However, plastic pollution continues to affect biodiversity and human health. Going forward, as we embrace 'the 'new normal' it will become necessary to balance public health and environmental agendas. This will be a challenge, particular in light of the economic impact of COVID-19. However, the pandemic has exposed the need to focus on long-term solutions rather than short-term fixes. The European Commission has confirmed that the deadline for the SUP Directive will not be postponed and the SUP Directive has the potential to encourage the development of innovative technologies and stimulate dynamic businesses.
In spite of the challenges COVID-19 presents, the SUP Directive will hopefully be an opportunity to move towards a more sustainable future.
We at Morton Fraser have created an Environment and Climate Change Unit, which places us in a good position to react to changing legislation. As a unit we want to reach out to others working in the field of Environmental and Climate Change Law and help to play our part in collectively shaping the agenda.
If you would like to join this conversation please contact me at Isabel.MacSwan@morton-fraser.com. We plan to host discussions and would be pleased to include you.