A Plastic Pandemic - Why WHY PLASTIC? Matters More Than Ever

May 26, 2020

Kajsa Rosenblad

In 2021, THE WHY is set to launch WHY PLASTIC?, a three part documentary series busting the myths and misinformation surrounding plastic pollution. This spring, after researching the ins and outs of the issue for a year, we were eager to start shooting all over the world, going to places such as the Philippines, India, the US, Germany and Denmark. The spread of the Covid-19 virus made this impossible, but we are still keeping busy. We are working hard to get the films financed, and we have reached co-production agreements with a number of European broadcasters. We are also planning and fundraising for a public awareness campaign around the three films. Our findings are too important and explosive to stay on screen alone. This issue needs to be debated, discussed and acted upon by a global, well-informed audience.

In fact, addressing plastic is more important now than ever. In the wake of the pandemic, the use of single-use plastic has skyrocketed. Part of the increase is for good reasons. In some countries, face masks are mandatory in public, and single-use plastic gloves are indispensable not only in care facilities, but also amongst essential workers in super markets, pharmacies and those working in public transport.

But all the same, reports from environmental advocates around the world are flowing in, showing how gloves and masks are already a common sight in waterways and in nature. As with other plastic items, these can be mistaken as food by animals. In addition, the frontline workers who have to clean up the plastic risk getting exposed to the virus, even though it is contested how long the virus can survive on different surfaces.


But the plastic industry is also using this public health crisis to further their own long-term goals. In the US, several states have delayed implementation of bans on single-use plastic items or temporarily lifted existing bans on plastic bags. In the EU, a plastic trade organisation has issued a request for the single-use plastic ban to be delayed as well. Some grocery stores have banned the use of canvas shopping bags and Starbucks has stopped offering reusable cups, preferring the single-use plastic items which have previously had a bad reputation for clogging waterways, polluting beaches and killing marine life.

The laxer attitudes towards single-use plastic can at least partially be attributed to the notion pushed by the plastic industry that plastic is safer to use than reusable items during the spread of the Covid-19 virus. The scientific basis for these claims is - as with a lot of claims surrounding the virus - not particularly strong. How long the virus can survive on different surfaces in different environments is a hotly contested issue, and to draw any conclusions right now is guesswork at best.

As if this wasn’t complicated enough, the petrochemical industry is facing a severe crisis in the wake of the virus, as the price of a barrel of oil briefly sank to minus $40, meaning that the industry would pay you to take a barrel off their hands. Pushing the production of plastic, which is made from the petrochemical byproducts from fossil fuels, is a quick way for the industry to make a buck. This is also part of a wider strategy from the petrochemical industry, as the production of plastic is set to double the coming 15 years while the global demand for gasoline goes down. A lot of this plastic will end up in emerging markets, where the petrochemical industry sees an untapped potential to sell plastic products.

What is safe to say is that what we all can and should do during this global pandemic, is clean our things (including reusable bags), wash our hands and follow the recommendations of our local health authorities. It’s easy to get tunnel vision in these strange times, but we have to remember the bigger fights we’re in. 

In many ways, the virus has made the WHY PLASTIC? films even more timely. We have been given the opportunity to compare our plastic planet pre- and post covid-19, and be the critical voice that reflects on these developments.

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