Of Plastic & the Pandemic

by Michael J. Caduto

The coronavirus pandemic struck many months before Vermont’s single-use products law took effect on July 1, 2020. Act 69 bans stores from handing out plastic bags at check-out, prohibits food service establishments from distributing plastic stirrers and bans all StyrofoamTM (expanded polystyrene) containers. The law also prohibits providing plastic drinking straws to customers (except upon request) and encourages straws and beverage stirrers made from environmentally-friendly materials.

When COVID-19 public health protocols were implemented, reusable grocery bags were pulled from stores out of fear that they could spread the virus. Concerns for the safety of food packagers and shoppers resulted in an increase of over 40% in global demand for single-use plastic containers. The volume of medical waste, including personal protective equipment, grew at many hospitals to ten times what it had been pre-pandemic, overwhelming both supply chains and the capacity of waste management systems. A recent article in Science estimated that, even after pandemic lockdowns end, the human population could end up using 65 billion disposable gloves and 129 billion face masks per month.

Prior to the pandemic, Sustainable Woodstock and Change the World Kids conducted a campaign to promote recycling and reuse, and advocated against single-use plastics through newspaper articles, student essays, programs and film screenings in our Climate Change and Sustainability Film Series (in partnership with Pentangle Arts). In addition to the health issues arising when our bodies absorb toxins from plastics, as well as the aesthetic issues and hazards presented to wildlife by litter, other serious environmental problems include:

  • Plastic bags and StyrofoamTM containers can take thousands of years to decompose, are easily blown in the air and eventually end up on land and in the ocean.
  • Terrestrial and aquatic wildlife mistake plastic bags for food. High concentrations of plastic materials, particularly plastic bags and microplastic pieces, have been found blocking the breathing passages and stomachs of hundreds of different species, causing painful decline and eventual death.

With the advent of vaccines and easing of protocols for social distancing and masking, it is high time to reanimate and fully enforce Vermont’s single-use products law. It is our collective responsibility to reduce single-use plastics by sourcing sustainable materials and reusing packaging and products. Considering the multitude of regional, national and global issues involved with the recycling of used plastics, the most viable long-term solutions are to use sustainable products and food containers, and to reuse everything for as long as possible.

Among the traditions of the Ainu—one of the ancient indigenous cultures of Japan—is a cautionary tale about what can happen if we throw useful things away. 

A young boy becomes gravely ill because his father has discarded an axe that had been in their family for generations. When the boy’s grandfather had died, his father, in his grief, had thrown the axe under their house, where the handle decayed and the metal blade became rusty and dull. 

In the delirium of fever, the boy discovers that his playtime companions (whom only he can see) are really his mother’s tea tray and pestle. They tell the boy that their Chieftain, who is in reality the family’s rusty axe, has made the boy sick because his father threw the axe away.

“How can I be healed?” asks the boy.

“Your father must sharpen and polish the axe blade. He must make a new handle of wood and carve it with the divine symbols of honor. If he does these things, you will be made well, and our Chieftain will visit you.”

When the boy tells his father what his friends have demanded, the father runs outdoors and retrieves the axe. Working quickly, he remakes the axe and handle, just as the Chieftain demanded. As soon as the father hammers the axe head onto its new handle, the boy is instantly healed. The boy’s friends and their Chieftain then come to visit, teaching the boy how to heal the sick. In time, the boy became a renowned healer.

If there is a modern-day analogy to the connection between the Chieftain and the axe, it is the sad lives of the manifold things that we use and discard in our worship of all things new. From disposable plastics and packaging, to the quest for the latest fashion or tech gadget, today’s objects of desire are tomorrow’s castaways. Paul McCartney even recorded a lamenting song about discarded things, aptly named “Junk.” Landfills have become our monuments to future generations.

What Can We Do?

  • Use only what is needed.
  • Choose and value things made out of wood, glass and other materials that will endure.
  • Reuse and repurpose things made out of plastic, metal and glass.
  • Recycle all of the plastic that is hard to avoid in today’s marketplace.
  • Instead of always buying “new,” patronize stores that offer used products.

We can also cherish those things handed down from our ancestors as the vessels of love and inherited wisdom that, not surprisingly, still offer much in the way of practical use.

Local and regional resale outlets include: Encore Designer Consignment and Who Is Sylvia? (Woodstock); Bridgewater Thrift Store; Revolution (White River Junction); Consign & Design (West Lebanon) and the Listen Thrift Stores (WRJct, Lebanon & Canaan).

Reusable & recyclable drinking straws. (Left to right): glass, paper, stainless steel. Photo: Michael J. Caduto.


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