By Aliyya Sawadjaan
Features Writer, The Philippine STAR

Today, plastics play a key role in the response against the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19). The material turned out to be both sanitary and can be used to protect against the transmission of the disease. It is used to create protective items such as masks, gloves, visors, gowns, personal protective equipment (PPE), as well as body bags.These protective items are widely used by the public and are essential in the fight against the disease.

Plastic in the fight against COVID-19

Since the first recorded COVID-19 case in the Philippines, the dependency on plastic items rose due to fears and concerns over health and hygiene. The government advised Filipinos to wear masks when stepping out of their homes and buying essential items. Some even go as far as wearing disposable gloves. Demand for cleaning products such as disposable wipes, cleaning agents, hand sanitizer, and alcohol is also at a record high. Lockdown measures have also led to an increase in the amount of packaging used for the delivery of food and groceries.

However, these items are not always disposed properly by the general public, and environmentalists fear the negative consequences for other people, wildlife, and the fight against plastic pollution. Gloves and masks cannot be recycled. Throwing these anywhere other than the trash bin puts others at risk for infection — which is why it is important to dispose these in the proper trash receptacle.

Plastic dependency in the time of corona

There is also the notion that single-use plastic bags are more hygienic compared to reusable ones, a thought that capitalizes on the threat of coronavirus contamination. But according to the World Health Organization (WHO), COVID-19 can live on surfaces including plastic and cardboard for three days or more.

Research has shown that one of the biggest challenges in promoting sustainable behavior is to break old habits and adopt new ones. In terms of plastic use, once people return to patronizing single-use plastics, the practice becomes normalized again despite efforts of using reusable ones.

Increased plastic use is inevitablegiven the current crisis, but there are some measures that can be done to try to lessen it to avoid waste. What to do to limit the use of plastic items but still be safe?

• Wash your hands. Regular hand-washing offers more protection against catching COVID-19 than wearing rubber gloves while out in public.

• Wash any surfaces that have been in contact with items from outside before putting these in your pantry or refrigerators.

• Unless you’re sick or a medical frontliner, use washable cloth masks. Washable cloth masks can also offer an acceptable level of necessary protection.

• Disinfect and clean any recyclable material before putting them into a recycle bin.

• Do not place recyclables in plastic bags. Clean these first before putting it out.

• Reusables are still safe to use. Simply wash cups, water bottles, utensils and dishes after use.

• Re-use shopping bags.

• Responsibly discard disposable products.

The ‘new normal’ and plastic use
To ensure their own safety, many business owners have put up plastic sheets to their stores or stalls as a protective barrier from customers or from the people around them. These include wet markets, bakeries and the like. With the country slowly easing lockdown restrictions, some businesses have resumed operations. Malls have opened with only hardware, clothing and accessories stores and barber shops, salons and spas resuming operations. Restaurants have been allowed but only for take-out and deliveries only, while dine-in options are still being considered by the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI).

Tricycles in Soldier Hills Muntinlupa are lined with plastic sheet barriers as part of the city’s stringent sanitary protocols.

However,on May 21, DTI Secretary Ramon Lopez said that the government is considering re-opening restaurants for dine-in at 50% capacity, provided that physical distancing can still be practiced and barriers (like plastic sheets or fiber glass) in between tables are put in place. Even some public transportation vehicles like jeepneys and tricycles have put up plastic sheets as barriers to comply with safety measures.

Some clothing stores have allowed customers to fit their products. For example, shoes. Customers will be given plastic bags to wear over their feet to fit shoes. The said items will then be sanitized will alcohol after.

While the COVID-19 pandemic has forever changedpeople’s lives, consumers can still reshape and rethink their overall plastic consumption. We can all lessen the pollution this behavior generates by making choices that lead to a cleaner and more sustainable future.