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Coronavirus: Soaring reliance on single-use plastics stalls B.C.’s zero-waste movement

Coronavirus: Soaring reliance on single-use plastics stalls zero-waste movement
Coronavirus: Soaring reliance on single-use plastics stalls zero-waste movement

Single-use plastics that were recently subject to growing municipal bans are now on the front lines of the COVID-19 response as retailers temporarily restrict the use of reusable items to help curb the spread of the coronavirus.

In Vancouver, the city’s first zero-waste grocery store is shifting to pick-up only after the pandemic halted its business model.

“The zero waste movement I think has definitely taken a hit in the last few weeks,” says Nada co-founder and CEO Brianne Miller.

READ MORE: Ottawa still committed to plastics ban, but focus is on COVID-19 crisis: minister

With shoppers no longer able to fill their own containers from the store’s more than 800 package-free and bulk selections, Nada is offering customers free 100-per cent-recycled paper bags or jars for a deposit.

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“We have a lot of increased labour costs,” Miller told Global News.

“It’s taking more time for our team to fill people’s containers instead of allowing our customers to do their own.”

How plastic beverage bottles are recycled in BC
How plastic beverage bottles are recycled in BC

Grocery chains have also banned reusable bags and instead provide carry-out bags, giving an unexpected boost to an industry that was facing wide bans on its product.

READ MORE: Easy ways to cut your family’s plastic waste

“There’s been a big push to try and supply enough to meet the demand,” says Craig Foster with the Canadian Plastic Industry Association.

Foster says the demand for plastic shopping bags has exploded and plastic plants are working around the clock to produce as many as possible.

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Non-profit organizations working hard to reduce the use of single-use plastics say they hope the ban momentum isn’t stalled for long.

“A part of me was disappointed and frustrated,” marine biologist Elaine Leung told Global News.

“At the same time, I recognize that the health authorities are doing the best that they can.”

Vancouver draft plan proposes fees for single-use cups and bags
Vancouver draft plan proposes fees for single-use cups and bags

As the founder of Sea Smart, a charity that educates youth on environmental sustainability, Leung has witnessed the devastating impact of plastic pollution. Thousands of marine mammals die every year after ingesting or getting entangled in plastic packaging.

READ MORE: Plastics in our oceans – How one Canadian is trying to clean up

“All this plastic use does have long-term impacts,” says Leung.

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Miller says she’s optimistic that the increased dependence on single-use disposables and plastic bags is only temporary and that consumers will eventually switch back to reusables.

The City of Vancouver banned single-use plastic straws last month and is still on track to ban plastic shopping bags next January, although enforcement of these bylaws is on hold until further notice.

COVID-19 has also delayed consultations on a national single-use plastics ban that was to start in 2021.