You Don't Need Single-Use Plastic Bags. You Need a Mask

Over the past few months, evidence has mounted that the virus’s primary mode of transmission is through the air. One study in March found the virus on air vent blades in a Covid-19 patient’s room in Singapore. Another the same month showed that infectious particles could float in lab-generated aerosols—tiny bits of liquid smaller than 5 microns—for up to three hours. Singing or talking loudly could even propel coronavirus-laced aerosols: In May, the CDC reported that following a two-and-a-half-hour choir practice, 32 people tested positive for Covid-19.

Zaller adds that he hasn’t seen any studies that have linked a cluster of infections to a contaminated surface or piece of plastic. “Now, that’s not to say that people shouldn’t be cautious,” Zaller says. “Disinfect everything, I certainly advocate for that. But going to this extreme—that we have to have all the single-use plastics—to me, there’s no real logic or science behind that.”

Scientific research, on the other hand, fully supports wearing masks to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. They keep you from spreading the virus to other people if you’re asymptomatic and don’t realize you’re infected, and they keep other people from spreading the virus to you. But here, too, we run into a recycling conundrum. Your hand-sewn cotton mask may be reusable, but doctors, nurses, emergency workers, and many other responsible masked citizens are churning through mountains of personal protective equipment (PPE). The vast majority of that’s going to the landfill, though some equipment, like face shields, can be broken down and recycled.

“We’re already seeing a massive increase of recycling needs for PPE,” says Szaky of TerraCycle. “It’s been a huge trend for us—like plastic gloves, face masks, that sort of stuff.” But with so many other recycling facilities shuttered across the world, even the material we try to recycle could be heading straight to the landfill.

sanitation workers cleaning stairs

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As the pandemic has dragged on, it’s given us an ever clearer picture of what a Covid-19 existence will look like long-term: plastic-covered. Offices and businesses are erecting walls of plexiglass, which’ll go straight to the landfill if damaged or torn down, once we’re on the other side of this pandemic. “Although plexiglass can be recycled, most municipalities and recycling centers do not accept it, since some types are not easily recyclable and require specialized equipment,” says Rachel Meidl, a fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute who studies plastics.

It all comes back to the perverse business of recycling. Technically speaking, any plastic is recyclable, but not every plastic is profitable to recycle. Outside of hockey rinks, plexiglass has been a relatively rare material until now, so it never made good business sense to develop the infrastructure to process it. “It’d be like, LaserDisc comes out,” says Szaky. “Everyone suddenly has LaserDiscs, but no one has players for it.”

The problem is that capitalism relies on profit, and it’s becoming increasingly difficult to profit from the recycling business. And the planet is suffering mightily for it. “Recycling, frankly, ought to be a government function,” Szaky continues, “like health care ought to be, or education ought to be, where it’s done because it’s the right thing to do. But recycling is a completely private enterprise, which means it’s going to function only on business equations.”

But perhaps the US government is finally coming around to the shortcomings of the private recycling industry. In June, House legislators introduced the Plastic Waste Reduction and Recycling Act, which calls for the establishment of programs for plastic waste reduction and for recycling technology R&D. “As the world acclimates to coexistence with the pandemic, recycling is making a comeback,” says Meidl. “Lawmakers are picking up where they left off, and some municipalities are resuming curbside collections.” Single-use plastic bags are once again getting sidelined as cities lift restrictions on reusable ones: San Francisco just rescinded its ban in response to mounting cries of wastefulness.