Staying Safe without Plastic in the Covid-19 Crisis: 5 Ways to Go Plastic-Free

Single-use plastic is undergoing a resurgence during the Covid-19 pandemic. Not surprisingly, it’s already adding significantly to ocean plastic pollution. Here are 5 ways to protect yourself from Covid-19 while staying plastic-free.

By Jeanne Yacoubou, MS

Plastic PPE Plus a Whole Lot More

Plastic personal protective equipment (PPE) like gloves and masks have become required items for living in today’s Covid-19 pandemic. 

Or so we are told.

Of course, the plastics industry wants us to believe this. There’s a veritable glut of fracked gas — almost worthless on the world’s markets while renewable energy soars — waiting to be transformed into gloves, gowns, masks and so much more.

To keep up with the fracked gas supply, the plastics industry is building and has plans to build many more plastics plants – called “crackers” – the world over.

Along with all the plastic donning store shelves, ecommerce websites and, of course, your body, comes millions more tons of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases accelerating climate change just to manufacture it all. 

Plus, making plastics dumps tons of carcinogenic and other disease-promoting toxic chemicals in our air, water, and land. 

Upshot: Climate change isn’t taking a break just because there’s a pandemic raging all over the world.

Citizens are rightfully angry about more cancer-causing air pollution from these crackers in their neighborhoods, and speaking up about it. Consequently, local or state jurisdictions are seeking to pass laws banning public protests of fossil fuel projects. 

Lengthy jail sentences — long enough to get some projects up and running — are worked into the bills as well.

So much for constitutional rights like free speech and public assembly in the age of fossil fuels.

Single-Use Plastic in Restaurants

Now, there are even more plastic products, intended to protect us as countries begin to “reopen.”  I call this “Covid-19 Plastics, Part 2.” 

The plastics industry and its governmental enablers couldn’t be more proud to provide these new plastics to people everywhere. To them, it’s life-saving. 

To me, it’s climate crisis-worsening. 

For instance, you know that right now the restaurant industry is practically dead. Because you can’t eat with a mask on, restaurants will be the last to reopen. Due to the economic downturn, many small, family-run restaurants will never reopen. 

Meanwhile, some restaurant chains are doing drive-thru or carryout only. This increases the amount of single-use plastic waste enormously. Things like single-use plastic bags, cutlery, food containers, cups, and the infamous straws.

Not to mention all the plastic worn by staff — gloves, gowns, masks —  delivering or handing food to you across a counter or from a drive-thru window.

Food and meal delivery services, benefiting from Covid-19, have also become hugely popular. The same single-use plastic bonanza celebrated by many restaurants during this pandemic is enacted with each home delivery, too.

All of this single-use plastic becomes unwanted trash. When not “properly disposed of,” it winds up in waterways. All part of a plastic addiction renewal or plastic renaissance of sorts.

Here’s a short French news clip (in English) from a few days ago about the new plastic scourge finding its way into our oceans. (I’m glad to see this is even making the news.)

Unfortunately, for all the fanfare from the plastics industry about the usefulness of their products during a  viral outbreak, no one is talking about recycling it or how to properly sanitize it for reuse in countries where healthcare workers are short on supplies (at no fault of their own).

Plexiglass Pods in Restaurants

But there are newer plastic creations in restaurants these days.

To entice people to come back in, owners are installing plastic pods from the ceilings in dining rooms. 

With the pods, intimate candlelit dinners at public restaurants are pastimes of a world long gone.

Created by French designer and interior decorator Christophe Gernigon and called Plex’Eat, they’re so new that not much information is available about them except that they’re plastic. 

plastic domes over dining chairs around table

From the name, they’re probably made out of plexiglass (commonly known as acrylic).

Chemically, plexiglass is made of long chains of methyl methacrylate (MMA), giving it the name poly(methyl methacrylate) or PMMA. MMA and its chemical cousins are banned in cosmetics like nail polish and artificial nails because they are highly toxic. 

Workers using MMA in factories making plexiglass, and medical professionals using it to make things like dentures, hearing aids, joint prostheses, and medical adhesives, are more at risk to develop cancer and lung disease.

Plexiglass itself is considered safe, however, in the majority of instances. There may be some residual MMA in the finished product which could cause serious health complications, but it’s relatively rare.

What’s important to note is that plexiglass is coded as plastic number 7: “other.” These types of plastic are routinely not recycled or recyclable. They are certainly not biodegradable. 

A technique for recycling plexiglass that results in a 98% pure acrylic product involves the heavy metal, lead. Needless to say, because lead is a neurotoxin, this method is not widely practiced nor popular. 

So, unless companies using plexiglass repurpose it, it most likely heads to a landfill. Making virgin plexiglass is so much cheaper than recycling it, anyway. Especially with the overabundance of fracked gas.

On top of that, recycled plastic is of poorer quality than virgin material, so, when it is recycled, it’s downcycled to make inexpensive and poor-quality goods. 

No details exist (that I could find at the time of this writing) on how and where the Plex’Eat pods will be sanitized between uses. Possibly I’m being too optimistic by assuming they will be. Maybe single-use, too? 

Horrors. Imagine the sheer quantity of plastic waste in that case.

Unfortunately, it’s not entirely clear that plastic pods will solve the problem they’re supposed to: protecting people from Covid-19. Especially when a study shows that ventilating air systems recirculate the virus.

In fact, a brand new article (June 2020), warns that indoor air transmission of SARS-CoV-2, the virus causing Covid-19, is a real problem not being addressed during country “reopenings.”

And, we already know (since March) that the virus remains viable (i.e., able to infect) for up to 3 hours in air and on many common surfaces.

survival rate of covid-19 on surfaces
Source: The Economist

So, unless I were completely enclosed in an air-tight bubble (and still somehow able to eat), I personally wouldn’t feel safe from Covid-19 at a sit-down restaurant. Would you?

Designers aware of this problem have another idea, not intended for restaurants but for virus-free clubbing. 

It looks like a space suit complete with its own air filtration system and is drink- and vape-friendly, of course. It’s called a personal protective suit designed by Protection Club. Various parts are made of different types of plastic.

personal protective suit

Different plastic types in a single item like the suit means it is very difficult to recycle. Maybe you’ll find some pre-owned suits at thrift shops one day. 

For me, socializing in a space suit like that in the Covid-19 Age leaves a lot to be desired. Don’t you agree?

New Plastic in Offices

There’s little doubt that the traditional open office as you’ve known will be a thing of the past because of Covid-19.

Companies are hurriedly placing orders for wall-length plastic barriers and shields between desks and along walkways.   

Many of these will be constructed out of plexiglass.

Others, (especially face shields), will be made of PETE plastic (polyethylene terephthalate) or of polycarbonate.

PETE (#1) is considered by some to be one of the safest of all plastic types. Of the 9% of all plastic that is recycled, a lot of it is #1.

Polycarbonate (#7) is usually made with BPA or similar chemicals (more toxic, in fact, than BPA). BPA is an endocrine disruptor associated with cancer, birth defects, hormonal disturbances, developmental delays, and many other health conditions. 

Some countries, including the United States, ban BPA in baby products. However, the official position of the U.S., unlike many other countries, is that BPA is “safe.” Many researchers believe otherwise. 

If you’re buying a face shield, I recommend avoiding all plastic, but especially polycarbonate made with BPA or its chemical cousins. 

See below for some ideas on how to navigate Covid-19 safely without plastic.

5 Plastic-Free Ways to Be Safe in the Covid-19 Pandemic

If you’re like me, you’re missing human society as we once lived in it. No longer can we sit close to one another, share hugs, attend concerts, etc., in quite the same ways without thinking, “Did I just contract or transmit SARS-CoV-2?”

Maybe you’re wondering when “normal” life will return.

Covid-19 is calling the shots here. It’s unlikely “normal” will ever return.

At the same time, our climate crisis isn’t going away. In fact, it’s worsening because carbon dioxide concentrations are still increasing due to over a century’s worth of burning fossil fuels. 

It is true that climate change is worsening even if there may be a slight drop (predicted to be 5%) in carbon emissions this year due to the economic slowdown.

Remember that plastic is solid fossil fuel, mostly from fracked gas.

 Once you change perspective and see plastic as a source of climate change, plastic is not acceptable as a material anymore.

There are two options for living well during a Covid-19 pandemic and doing your part to curb climate change by ending your dependence on fossil fuels.

  1. Change your behavior.
  2. Use plastic alternatives.

I elaborate on these two basic principles below in my 5 tips for being plastic-free during the Covid-19 pandemic.

#1 Use only cotton masks, tightly woven thread, that you wash daily.

For the general public, resuming normal activities like shopping, attending concerts, and going to doctor’s appointments requires that you take care of yourself and protect others from you (in case you’re a symptomatic or asymptomatic carrier). This means wear a mask at the minimum. 

If you believe gloves are necessary, cotton or silk glove liners that are washable are ideal.

Face masks aren’t needed for doing daily activities.

#2 Keep a small metal bottle of DIY hand sanitizer with you.

It’s super easy to make your own World Health Organization-approved hand sanitizer. Keep it with you when you’re out and about and have no soap and water to use (preferred), or you just don’t want to use a public restroom during Covid-19 (smart thinking). Disinfect your hands liberally after each errand. The alcohol content in the sanitizer means it will evaporate quickly. (No towel needed.)

In a one-liter bottle or measuring cup, add the following then top off with distilled water up to the 1L mark (note: 1L = 1,000mL):

  • 833 mL of ethanol (96%)
  • 42 mL of hydrogen peroxide (3%)
  • 15 mL of glycerol (98%)
  • A few drops of your favorite essential oil (optional)

That’s it! No more plastic hand sanitizer bottles with plastic hand pumps to throw away. (Given their size and different plastic types, it’s very unlikely that these are recycled anywhere in the world today.)

Best of all, no more plastic sanitizer wipes (like baby wipes) that are certainly never recycled!

#3 Eat only at outdoor restaurants.

Some restaurant owners are getting really creative in the Age of Covid-19.

A Dutch restaurant, for example, built mini-greenhouses made out of glass for diners. 

But how practical is this, especially in the winter? 

If you’re lucky to have a restaurant close to you with glass mini-greenhouses, go for it! Support local businesses.

Because airborne transmission through recirculation ventilation systems is a problem indoors, it is not prudent to eat at a typical restaurant now. Possibly, if effective air filters are invented to trap viruses, it may become possible one day to dine in again. 

#4 Do Your Own Grocery Shopping and cook at home.

If you’re like most people, you can get to the store every two weeks or so. Maybe you have a small vegetable garden to benefit from as well? During lockdown, you have the time to prepare food. In fact, you’ll be joining millions of others getting back to the kitchen.

Food and meal delivery services come along with lots of plastic packaging. And carbon emissions to get to you. Try to avoid these.

#5 Work from Home.

I understand that this may not be possible for everyone. But the majority of people work in offices. A lot, if not all, of this work can be done at home. Many companies are doing more of this. Talk it up to your boss! It’s the future of work.

Maybe, you can start your own business at home. Some small business types that you could look into starting are thriving during Covid.

Either way, you’d avoid a carbon-emitting commute and sitting enclosed in a plastic barrier. That shield won’t protect you anyway with indoor air possibly recirculating virus that you’re breathing all day.

Plastic-Free Covid-19 Wrap Up

Living in a Covid-19 world requires modification and change. Without adapting, you risk getting infected or making others sick if you’re a carrier.

For most people coping with relaxed lockdowns, wearing tightly-woven cotton masks and cotton glove liners, both of which can be washed, is adequate protection.

Eating only at outdoor restaurants and doing your own grocery shopping and cooking are examples of safe behaviors that limit plastic use and carbon emissions. 

Working at home also reduces your carbon footprint.

By following my 5 tips, you’ll be doing your part in safeguarding public health. You’ll also be reducing your carbon footprint through eliminating plastic in significant ways.

It all adds up!