Yanir Aharonson
Yanir Aharonson
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No, the pandemic wasn’t good for the environment

It's not (just) the straws! The destructive force of single-use plastic will only be curbed by a circular economy, in which we reuse plastic several times over
BECICI AND BUDVA, BUDVA MUNICIPALITY, MONTENEGRO - JULY 31, 2020: Plastic and other garbage polluting in the Adriatic Sea.  Used medical face masks discarded after COVID-19 on the beach and falls into the sea, drifts underwater along with plastic debris and settle at the bottom, approaching an ecological catastrophe. Discarded used medical face mask along with other plastic debris lies on the seabed. (Andrey Nekrasov/Barcroft Media via Getty Images)
BECICI AND BUDVA, BUDVA MUNICIPALITY, MONTENEGRO - JULY 31, 2020: Plastic and other garbage polluting in the Adriatic Sea. Used medical face masks discarded after COVID-19 on the beach and falls into the sea, drifts underwater along with plastic debris and settle at the bottom, approaching an ecological catastrophe. Discarded used medical face mask along with other plastic debris lies on the seabed. (Andrey Nekrasov/Barcroft Media via Getty Images)

The pandemic was great for the environment, they said. Earth had grown tired of human fossil fuels, so it made an executive decision to banish us into lockdown and reduce carbon emissions unilaterally.

Earth must have forgotten plastic is killing it, too.

With everyone staying in their own homes, single-use plastic consumption rose dramatically, with detrimental impact to the environments around us. That’s a bigger problem than some might think, since a whopping 90 percent of plastic globally cannot be recycled, according to GreenPeace. Yet hospitals, restaurants, and clothing stores constantly contribute to the planet’s plastic overload. There’s only one solution to this problem: ban single-use plastic and promote a circular economy in which plastic is reused several times over.

Since the onset of the pandemic, carbon dioxide emissions dropped as governments closed down borders and decreed lockdowns. Daily global emissions decreased by 17% by early April 2020, according to a “Nature” climate change report. So while COVID-19 was great for cutting carbon emissions temporarily, what about sustainability?

Hundreds of plastic containers, coffee cups, and non-reusable masks are found littered around Israeli beaches, parks, and streets. Of the OECD countries, Israel has a serious plastic problem. We have the highest rate of landfilling — 80% capacitywith less than 7% of waste recycled.

It’s not as though the rest of the world, however, has done much better. Single-use plastic consumption spiked globally, and not only because people were using more straws. The medical sector relied heavily on plastic, including the use of the face shield (PP), gown (LDPE), vinyl gloves (PVC), disposable bags, tube, and masks (plastic sheet and non-woven fabric), to combat the pandemic, according to a UN report. China alone accumulated 142,000 tons of medical waste — masks, gloves, and other medical single-use protective gear — alone and scientists are still waiting to assess its impact on oceans. 

On top of the medical sector, restaurants and clothing brands used more non-reusable plastic as well. People didn’t want to leave their houses, so everyone began shopping online and ordering food to their doors. Food delivery containers are often styrofoam or non-recyclable plastic, many of which are wrapped in even more non-recyclable plastic. 

Now imagine what happened during the pandemic, when we all relied on Wolt and TenBis for our daily sustenance and entertainment.

The way humans use plastic is contributing to three planetary crises: pollution, climate change, and nature loss, according to the Ellen Macarthur Foundation Global Commitment 2020 report. So far, more than 500 businesses, organizations, and governments have signed onto the pact aiming to create a circular economy for plastic by 2025 so it never becomes waste. In addition, CEFLEX, the European organization of plastic recycling, has grown substantially — with 160 European corporations, organizations, and associations on board — and suggests the use of mono-material that can be easily recycled. The organization is investing time and resources into  making a more sustainable world, promoting a more circular economy. 

These foundations are not leading the charge alone. The EU recently passed a new law stating, “where sustainable alternatives are easily available and affordable, single-use plastic products will be banned from 3 July, 2021. This ban will apply to cotton bud sticks, cutlery, plates, straws, stirrers, and sticks for balloons. It will also apply to cups, food and beverage containers made of expanded polystyrene, including all products made of oxo-degradable plastic.” 

Now, many countries are implementing plastic taxes to dissuade people from using single-use, non-recyclable plastic bags. In the US, eight states have implemented laws outright banning stores and markets from distributing single-use plastic bags. Many supermarkets tend to offer inexpensive tote bags, and often charge customers an extra fee if they use the plastic bags available at the market. There is often an incentive to buy the tote, or bring one’s own, but new studies show these cotton tote bags may actually be worse for the environment. As new research comes out, it seems maybe recycling the current plastic bags — using the Safeway bag again and again until it’s time to put it in the recycling bin — may be the best way to go.

While governments are implementing these new incentives to dissuade single-use plastic, companies are also taking the fight into their own hands. It’s becoming less and less common to find plastic straws at restaurants, cafes, and coffee shops. For example, Starbucks changed the lids on its cold drinks, so customers wouldn’t need to use straws. Other restaurants using paper straws and reusable metal straws have become increasingly popular among the environmentally conscious. 

Climate change continues to be a hot topic and every day we see new campaigns to “save our sea turtles,” “stop climate change now,” among many others. Consumers are becoming increasingly environmentally conscious and are looking for greener alternatives.

However, even with all these initiatives, studies continue to predict at least a twofold increase in plastic waste by 2030, effectively continuing to ruin our oceans and kill wildlife. It’s time to stop repeating the same cycle and come up with fresh, new solutions. We must wean ourselves off single-use, non-recyclable plastic. These initiatives are a great way to start solving the problem, but it’s not enough. Until corporations and people switch to fully recyclable plastic, we will continue to see plastic fill our landfills and our oceans.

About the Author
Yanir Aharonson is the CEO of Polysack ( www.polysack.com). He is a serial entrepreneur with 20 years’ of experience managing technology based start-up and established companies. Aharonson is experienced in strategic planning, market development, go-to-market, business development, fund-raising, P&L management and building a strong management-team. He holds a BSc. in Computer Science and a MA in Economics and Business from Hebrew University.
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