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COVID-19 has ravaged more than public health; our environment is also bearing the cost of the pandemic.

A plastic bag entangled in a tree. // Photo by Kate Ter Haar

By Kaleigh Carroll

To reuse, or not to reuse?

As this sustainability conundrum sweeps across social media, cities and states across the U.S. are beginning to ask the same question.

With climate change becoming a more pressing issue for people and governments, there has been a greater focus on creating regulations to combat this environmental threat.

Single-use plastics, particularly plastic straws and bags, have become the focus of environmental legislation throughout the U.S. and in Washington state.

Rightfully so, as one 2019 study from the Center for International Environmental Law found that single-use plastics make up more than 40% of the total production of plastics, but less than 12% are successfully recycled.

There is great momentum in Washington state surrounding single-use bans. In 2020, the Washington State Senate passed a bill allowing retailers to charge 8 cents per paper or reusable plastic bag.

In 2017, the city of Seattle banned retailers from providing customers with plastic bags, and the following year required all foodservice businesses to stop supplying single-use utensils, straws and other packaging to combat waste.

Years earlier, in 2012, Bellingham enacted a similar plastic bag ban that required retailers to charge customers for plastic bags. Now, the city council is considering a ban on single-use plastic items like utensils, plates and bowls.

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced cities to pause these measures in the name of public safety.

Both Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan and Bellingham Mayor Seth Fleetwood have announced the plastic bans will be paused until their proclamations of civil emergencies are lifted. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also recommends that people use disposable items whenever possible.

Protecting public health during the pandemic should be a priority, but we shouldn’t lose focus on the environmental responsibilities we have once we emerge from it.

Plastic waste is a growing problem that has negative effects on both the environment and the economy. A review from ScienceDirect shows that increased plastic waste has been linked to reduced tourism revenue, increased damage to marine environments and overall negative impacts on public health.

While methods like recycling do offset some of the plastic waste, it is far from a completely effective practice.

According to data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, in 2018, only 25% of plastic waste was recycled, 22% was incinerated and 42% was littered or left in landfills.

Bans and fees that discourage people from using single-use plastics in the first place can help reduce the plastic problem at the source.

The city of Toronto found that when a 5-cent charge per plastic bag was introduced, people used 53% fewer plastic bags. Of those surveyed in the city, 59% said that the plastic bag fee encouraged them to use reusable bags instead of single-use ones.

Disability rights groups are concerned that people with disabilities who rely on disposable items won’t be accommodated under the bans. Single-use items, like plastic straws, are sometimes the only reliable and safe option for people with disabilities when they’re eating in public. Alternatives like metal straws can be hard to clean and paper straws can be too weak.

However, there are clear provisions in both Seattle and Bellingham’s single-use ban that allows businesses to provide single-use items to customers upon request.

While the pandemic rages on, we have a duty to protect public health, but let’s consider Mother Nature’s well-being too.

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