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Source: Greenpeace New Zealand

Could anyone have imagined this?  We have to google “where to find gloves and masks?” before going grocery shopping.

And there I am. At the local supermarket. People doing the glove thing, the mask thing, the spraying down the trolley handle thing. 

And it happens. Right in the middle of the fruit and veg section.

I size up some good-looking broccoli, loose in a box. Then my hand starts straying towards the veggies covered in plastic. 

 My reptilian brain, my basal ganglia, is going “safer, safer for me, safer for my family.” 

Let me be transparent about this, I work for Greenpeace. I write for the campaign against single-use plastics.

Instead of being appalled at this plastic-wrapped vegetable, imagining its discarded wrapper sat atop the 6.3 billion tonnes of plastic dumped by humans, clogging up oceans, killing sea animals, choking landfills, waterways, refusing to decompose, just turning into smaller and smaller pieces ending up in our food chain. Instead of being frightened by that real threat, I was scared by germs.

For a split second I experienced the full subliminal force of the plastics marketing machine.  From the 1950s when the oil industry first introduced this space age disposable material telling us that there’s nothing cleaner than something wrapped in plastic. 

Thing is, unless you are talking about the medical grade stuff  there is nothing intrinsically sanitary about plastic. Pathogenic bacteria, viruses will all lurk there just as happily as anywhere else.  They can sit on the thing inside the plastic, they can sit on the plastic itself, there is nothing magical about this material. It does not repel disease.

A new study from the New England Medical Journal indicates that corona viruses can survive on cardboard for 24 hours and on plastic surfaces for 2-3 days.  Another paper showed similar viruses lasting on plastic for 2-9 days.

(There was one surface where the corona virus is thought to live only 4-8 hours. But we’re unlikely to get our produce packed in Copper any time soon.)

In the last four years we’ve seen people all over the world turn away from single-use plastic in droves; plastic bag bans, straws, plastic cutlery, plastic takeaway containers, and more recently calls to end single use drink bottles. 

In the midst of our covid horror there are now worrying signs of interested parties using the pandemic to their advantage, whipping up human fear to stem the tide against plastic products. 

As the Government food safety website tells us, Corona viruses are most commonly passed from person to person contact. That hasn’t stopped people getting worried they will come back from the supermarket with something deadly on their packaging.

You saw the beginning of this phenomenon before lock down. Remember the panic about reusable cups?  Never mind that the logic is backwards. If you buy a disposable cup you don’t know who’s touched it or coughed on it.  

With a reusable cup is that you know exactly where it’s been. Washing your reusable cup with soap and hot water or ideally in a dishwasher is enough to destroy any trace of virus and keep your favourite barista safe.

Same goes for fabric grocery bags – a quick hot wash through the washing machine will remove viruses and pathogenic bacteria. The two studies mentioned didn’t test how long coronavirus lasts on fabric bags but microbiologists report that absorbent surfaces can limit life expectancy.

In a wave of apparent germophobia across the US it’s reported a number of States have banned reusable grocery bags.

This followed a deluge of misleading media articles with thoughtful headlines like “the dumb plastic bag ban is even dumber than we thought”.

A new research paper by Greenpeace US has evidenced links between the people supplying and fronting these articles and plastic manufacturers or oil companies.

Why oil companies? With the massive downturn from a price war and the effects of Covid on petrol sales, they are hoping demand from plastic manufacturers will protect their profits.

As Deirdre McKay, from Keele University writes:  petroleum companies now plan to convert up to 40% of the crude oil they intend to extract into petrochemicals for plastics.

But plastic pollution, including the 8 billion tonnes going into the sea every year, isn’t the only aspect of this crisis. 

In developing countries it’s getting burnt, fuelling climate change.

A study by NGO Tear Fund released at the end of last month shows four global drinks giants in six developing countries could fill 83 football pitches a day with plastic waste. Burning it, they estimate is equivalent to 4.6m tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent.

Coca cola was the worst offender in the report. Here in NZ and ‘round the world this same company keeps producing single-use bottles – more than 100 billion a year – and keeps pushing responsibility for the plastic crisis back on the consumer, assuring us that recycling is the answer.  Another myth.

Only nine per cent  of the 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic ever made has been recycled. That’s why we’re drowning in the stuff.

Those with their recycling collection stopped for lockdown will get a sense of that.

Single-use plastic from the shops is not our little hygienic friend who merrily leaps into the recycling bin and reproduces himself. He’s a malevolent enemy that will overwhelm us if we let him.

Happy to report that I didn’t end up buying broccoli wrapped in plastic.