There have been many unintended consequences of Covid-19 worldwide – but one, in particular, could be undoing years of tireless campaigning against single-use plastic, warns plastic waste collection company Divert.co.uk.
As a result of shoppers’ fears about Covid-19 transmission, countless supermarkets are seeing the rise of single-use plastic bag, particularly in the fresh produce sections.
Most have made steps to improve their practices, with supermarkets such as Sainsbury’s selling reusable mesh bags for produce and others reducing the use of packaging in the first place, ensuring customers opt for eco-friendly options for their loose produce. Tesco committed to removing one billion pieces of plastic from its stores by the end of 2020, while Asda introduced its first sustainable packaging-free section in their Leeds store in January last year.
Almost all of the UK’s major food retailers are signed up to the UK Plastics Pact, launched in 2018, which aims to eliminate single-use plastics and increase the use of recyclable or compostable packaging. Consumer behaviour has, largely, followed suit.
The pandemic, however, has halted many of these waste reduction schemes in their tracks, as customers are increasingly turning back to the ubiquitous plastic bag for their produce.
“I haven’t bought loose fruit and veg since last March,” said one shopper surveyed by waste disposal experts Divert.co.uk. “I’d rather have things in plastic bags, it feels more hygienic really.”
Others agreed. Matt, 36, said: “I can’t really explain it, it just feels like it’s safer. I don’t want to be picking up bits of fruit and veg with my hands and chucking them in a trolley, the plastic bags are extra protection.”
Others agreed the change was noticeable: of 250 shoppers surveyed, 83% said they had bought the majority of their fruit or vegetables had in some form of plastic bag or packaging. Just 17% said they were continuing to make use of reusable or recyclable bags and choosing fresh produce where it was available – whereas 28% reported having done so before the pandemic.
Over a third – 40% – of plastic food packaging is used just once, and UK supermarkets produce 1.2 billion plastic fruit and veg bags a year, making this sharp increase in use a concerning statistic.
Mark Hall, Divert.co.uk’s spokesperson, said it was a tricky issue.
“It’s understandable that people – and businesses – want to avoid the risk of Covid-19, and on the face of it, bundling food back into plastic packaging seems like an obvious choice. But it seems to be a knee-jerk reaction that hasn’t taken into account the fact that science seems to show that transmission risk via surfaces and objects is very low – giving your apples a good wash before use should be precaution enough!”
The solution, Divert.co.uk says, would have been a more considered approach: compostable paper gloves to allow customers to select loose produce, regularly-cleaned tongs, a public awareness campaign around washing fruit and veg or strict ‘you touch it, you buy it’ rules could have been implemented early on to slow the impact of a sudden return to single-use plastic.
As ‘that ship has long since sailed’, as Hall comments, “A short, sharp shock is needed.”
“A big public campaign to remind the public about single-use plastics and the enormously detrimental effect they have on the environment is a good start.” Hall continues.
“Financial incentives for bringing reusable bags for consumers, or financial disincentives to retailers using unnecessary plastic instead of recyclables past the end of this lockdown, would also help focus the public mind back onto this crucial issue. It’s not that the virus isn’t important – of course, it is, and safety must come first. But with slightly more joined-up thinking we could have avoided a colossal amount of landfill being generated in the last 12 months, and it’s time we stopped treating the environment and its protection as an optional concern.
“Both the public and businesses have a responsibility to continue making waste reduction a priority and finding innovative, environmentally friendly solutions when needed – like they have been this year.”