The Ethics of Plastic Waste During the Pandemic
The problem is a global one, but individual actions still matter
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I had a bit of an existential crisis in my rural Walmart recently. I am not ashamed to admit it was not my first Walmart-induced existential meltdown, but this one was brought on by the lettuce. I weighed my options: I could put a naked head of romaine into my mesh produce bag, or I could grab the shrink-wrapped three-pack.
I looked at the sheer mesh, purchased last year to limit my plastic usage. Each tiny hole felt like a portal built just for the coronavirus’s pleasure. The plastic-wrapped package won the day.
There’s something about a global pandemic that makes you want to hermetically seal yourself into a cocoon of single-use everything. I’m not the only one feeling this way. San Francisco, which previously had a plastic-bag ban, about-faced and banned cloth bags. Massachusetts banned reusable bags, too. Some retailers across the country are discouraging the cloth versions by telling shoppers they’ll have to sack their own groceries and nixing bag credits.
But it’s not just bags. On an individual level, many folks are wearing plastic gloves and cleaning everything with single-use wipes that likely don’t biodegrade. Someday, when we have a vaccine, it will be shot into millions of arms with millions of single-use syringes.
My crisis in the lettuce aisle was about whether I could square the value of my existence with the mountain of plastic I was contributing to in order to protect my health. The bag suctioned tight around my romaine will outlive me, whether I get COVID-19 or not. To believe that trade-off is fair takes hubris.
“How do I know my life is valuable enough to justify all this waste I’m creating?” I asked when I got John Nolt, a philosophy professor at the University of Tennessee, on the phone last week. Nolt lectures and writes extensively on generational ethics—what our generations owe those coming after us, especially from an environmental standpoint. He politely laughed and thought back to the early 2000s, when a colleague of his, John Hardwig, published a paper titled “Do We Have a Duty to Die?” The paper debated the merits of prolonging a life in a strained health care system. “He was really hated for that article, but I think it’s a wonderful question,” says Nolt. At the heart of Hardwig’s paper is the seesaw of determining what makes a life worth living. Every single one of us existing in the era of climate change should probably be thinking about this question now and then—global pandemic or not—as our very presence on earth is a resource burden.
To be clear, Nolt doesn’t believe that humans are a stain on this planet, or that COVID-19 should wipe us off the map. Such thinking, he says, is both reductive and unproductive. And who is one individual to assign value or blame to every other life on this planet?
However, he does suggest that “you can ask the question of your own life: Is what I’m doing with my life valuable enough to compensate for all the harm I’m doing?”
Fair warning: asking this makes you take a hard look at what you’re really doing for the planet. And considering all the ways in which we impact the environment, not using plastic bags is negligible. (For instance, even with Americans and other people in various countries around the world leaving their cars parked and not flying anywhere, global carbon emissions only fell 5.5 percent in April.)
In fact, Jacob Erickson, who teaches theological ethics at Trinity College in Dublin, says that thinking about my environmental actions through the lens of what I’m personally consuming—or not consuming—is a trap that many environmentalists keep getting caught up in. He points to the work of Sarah McFarland Taylor, an associate professor of religion at Northwestern University and author of the book Ecopiety; it indicates that we think of being green in really intensely individualistic ways. Most often we think of it from a consumption standpoint: What am I buying or consuming, and is it green enough? It’s why a lot of the discussion on reversing global warming has focused on whether almond or oat or cow’s milk is best instead of dismantling an economic system built on rampant consumption.
I’m falling into this trap by worrying about plastic bags in a pandemic. Yes, we all need to reduce our plastic waste. However, we also must advocate for large-scale structural change, at the very least making our voices heard at the ballot box. That second issue is far more critical than the first, but individual actions do matter.
So is it OK to use cloth bags? Probably, but you need to take some extra precautions when doing so. (And do not expect a cashier to handle them.) Research from the National Institutes of Health shows the virus can live up to 24 hours on cardboard. To be safe, assume the same is true for cloth. However, like washing your hands, washing your bags will kill the virus. The North Carolina State University extension office recommends washing cloth bags in warm water with laundry detergent. If you’ve got reusable plastic or nylon bags, it’s recommended that you wash them inside and out with warm, soapy water and spray them with disinfectant or diluted bleach. And always wash your hands after putting everything away.