Driving home  ‘single-use’: plastic politics in the times of the COVID-19

Driving home  ‘single-use’: plastic politics in the times of the COVID-19

Tridibesh Dey and Mike Michael

“As coronavirus bears down on society, single use plastic steps up in an unprecedented way”, argued the authors of an article, published on this platform last month. Indeed, whether as essential constituents of PPE (personal protective equipment), or as sanitary products, or as food and drinks packaging, massive quantities of plastics, of various kinds, are being produced, purchased, deployed and disposed of every day (often double-enclosed in single-use bin bags as directed by governmental guidelines). In the large-scale management of Covid-19, where the separation of spaces and bodies, and the minimization of cross-infection are paramount, the use of plastic products (for convenience, hygiene and impenetrability) and their timely disposal would seem common-sensical and crucial.

Manifestly, the functional utility of plastic is not restricted to medical or care settings, but is an increasing feature of the emergent forms of everyday life, including of new modes of retail shopping and consumption. In this article, we discuss some of the highly charged debates around “single-use” and “re-usability” with regards to plastic shopping bags. We especially address the ways in which everyday plastic products are tied into the large-scale management of the COVID-19 pandemic, and re-purposed as part of a moral investment in the “saving of lives”. If one were to derive a mantra from this, it would go something like: “be a responsible citizen, use single-use plastic bags”.

In medical and social care, at least in the West, single-use synthetic products (from operative to protective equipment) have long been adopted en masse. These products address a plethora of concerns that include the need to curtail cross-infection and to increase the time-efficiency of care practices. Lobbies like the Plastics Industry Association (PLASTICS) or the American Chemistry Council (ACC) have long advocated plastics’ revolutionary role in the medical field. However, the sheer nature and scale of the COVID-19 pandemic and its pressures on already strained public health systems render single-use somewhat indispensable, especially when reliable infrastructures of re-use are unavailable.

In effect, as recent public controversies in the UK around the inadequacy of PPE for “frontline” staff would suggest, the variegated gaps in the demand and supply for many of these synthetic products bear critical consequences for public health and societies at large. Earlier UK governmental guidelines approving re-use under acute shortages met strong opposition, and the subject is fraught with questions of personal safety, responsibility and public trust. In this light, we note how the latest superseding guidelines relegate the topic of re-use in face of the desperate need for “effective” disinfection under emergency conditions.

If the promotion of single-use plastic in healthcare is about reducing the chances of cross-infection, a similar dynamic can be found in the sphere of domestic retail consumption and waste disposal. The strict mobilisation of “social distancing” (self and household quarantine) enlists the “home” in the fight against the coronavirus. The public, as good citizens, are encouraged – obliged – to discipline themselves and their stuff, that is, to govern in new ways the movements of their bodies and their objects as they go into and come out of the “home”, and to control the range and quality of cross-surface contact. This is, of course, directly linked to home delivery services and the spectacular increase in volumes of goods to a suddenly increased number of home-quarantined consumers. It is also directly linked to the retail packaging industry, and the management of the safety of individual shoppers and staff within the store environment.

Finally, the systems of civic waste collection are also subject to the same sort of self-discipline this time to protect the people working with domestic waste. National and local authorities in the UK have updated waste handling policies – from cleaning bin-handles to the timely disposal and double-bagging of waste, with many citizens on social media appealing to neighbours to show care for waste-workers. In all these cases, plastic – as indeed, other materials – potentially provides surfaces on which the coronavirus can settle and from which it can spread.

In the meantime, big corporate chains – Starbucks, McDonald’s, Trader Joe’s among others, were quick to ban consumers from bringing in re-usable cups and shopping bags. From early on in March, several think-tanks and lobbies, supporting the interests of plastics producers and ancillary industries, made efforts to mobilize public opinion for single-use plastic products, citing the reasons of hygiene and convenience. In some cases, heavily affective language is deployed: for instance, in the piece “Greening our way to infection”, the re-usability of shopping bags (notably circulating between the “home” and the supermarket) is associated with increased chances of cross-infection. “Single-use plastic bags provide a sanitary and convenient way to carry our groceries home while protecting supermarket employees and customers from whatever is lurking on reusable bags,” wrote PLASTICS President Tony Radoszewski.

Several grocery workers’ organisations, including one Chicago-based union, called for an end to “the disease-transmitting bag” tax, to effectively protect store-workers, thus, turning the “bag for life” narrative on its head. Pulling together the “indispensability” of single-use plastics in healthcare and in retail consumption in his statement, Radoszewski concludes, “As the COVID-19 virus spreads … single-use plastics will only become more vital. We live longer, healthier and better because of single-use plastics.” While this rhetoric seeks to drive home the case for mass adoption of single-use, in practice, reversals on present bans and taxes and reviews of upcoming policies for the longer-term reduction-reuse-recycling of single-use plastics are being sought.

In some cases, controversial scientific evidence has been used to substantiate the above rhetoric.  A 2011 study about residual bacteria (not viruses), allegedly funded in part by the plastics producers’ association, ACC, is often cited. Further scientific evidence seems to have been re-appropriated to favour a quick use-and-throw-away culture. Two studies (one in the New England Journal of Medicine, another in the Journal of Hospital Infection) have been much publicized recently, and have been cited by the spokespersons mentioned above. Both the articles suggest a longer viability of SARS-CoV-2 on plastic surfaces as compared to metals, cardboard, glass, etc., while the latter article also explicates chemical methods of viral inactivation “within 1 minute”. However, the possibilities of disinfection are not pursued, and the use of alternative materials downplayed by the above lobbying voices.

Further, John Tierney, in the City Journal article cited above, refers to the moral and practical burden on the individual shopper tasked with segregating bags used for different kinds of food and material contents, washing and drying them “carefully”, etc., and draws the debatable conclusion that “it’s hopelessly unrealistic to expect people to follow all those steps”. It is worthwhile here to note how the responsibility is placed on the individual citizen and consumer, who is now portrayed as a suspect carer for and of the wider community. Such a mobilisation of doubt and distrust in personal choice and retail practices, amidst a state of public health emergency, attempts further to drive home the case for “single-use”, by favouring a convenient portrayal of responsible citizenship.

One question that we face is how does this equation of single-use plastics and responsibility gain purchase, not least with the public, and in the face of existing commitments to the reduction of single-use plastics. Clearly, this is embedded within an affectively potent discourse crafted around care and concern for human lives, and the prerogative of protecting personal and social health. Yet this is itself nested within a wider and abidingly resonant narrative of warfare and the “invisible enemy”. In a state of emergency, where we are under attack by an external viral “other”, the expectations are for rallying together and doing whatever is necessary to save lives, including diluting the commitment to plastic use reduction.

As is now well substantiated, UK and US governments have not exactly done all that they could have done at the onset of the pandemic. Nevertheless, they seem happy to  acquiesce to demands for rolling back single-use bans and taxes, thereby enabling single-use by consumers. Many states and counties in the US have banned re-usable bags, the New York State single-use bag ban enforcement has been postponed until June. In the UK, DEFRA revoked charges on shopping bags for online deliveries until September, while parliamentary considerations of the new environment bill 2019-2021, with implications for single-use plastic reduction in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, have been suspended until further notice.

Of course, there are other emotionally-charged “atmospheres” in play.  For example, the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic, not least through the current constant media coverage, are, at least in the West, spatially and temporally more immediate than those of plastics, or related global climate change issues. Taking all these deeply emotive narratives, discourses and atmospheres together, it would seem that Covid-19 has been affectively mobilized to displace the evolving practices involved in lowering plastic consumption, at least for the time being, and for the foreseeable future. And yet, ironically, and not without disconcertment, the self-discipline being asked for in dealing with Coronavirus – including the surveillance of plastic use – might be setting the scene for other forms of discipline that will be needed when the impacts of plastic pollution and climate change emergencies, eventually, come closer to home.


Tridibesh Dey is an environmental engineer-turned-anthropologist, with experiences in plastic waste management. He is currently International Excellence Scholar at the University of Exeter, Department of Sociology, Philosophy and Anthropology, working towards his PhD. Research interests include everyday use, re-use, and recycling of plastics, and emergent forms of plastic politics. Twitter: @treeonplastics. Mike Michael is a sociologist of science and technology, and a professor at the Department of Sociology, Philosophy and Anthropology at the University of Exeter. Research interests include the public understanding of science and the relation of everyday life to technology. He is co-editor of Accumulation: The Material Politics of Plastic. (Routledge, 2013).

Photo by Juan Pablo Serrano Arenas from Pexels