Dhaka, Bangladesh
How COVID-19 changes our perspectives on environment protection

How COVID-19 changes our perspectives on environment protection

Writes Kwack Eun-kyoung

The coronavirus outbreak has transformed each and every corner of our daily lives. The biggest of those changes may be none other than the rise of the "contactless lifestyle." Ways of working, studying and consuming are encouraged to be performed with the minimal of contact and physical encounters. Working from home, online classes, kiosks instead of counters, online shopping and delivery applications have become the norm. Change is often unfamiliar, and therefore shunned by many, but people are steadily adapting to it. Some of these will be gone once the pandemic is over, but some, which have set a new trend in society, should stay for good. Environmental regulations, especially those on the use of disposable products, are a good example to follow. Personal hygiene is of the utmost priority, so being "contactless" in our lives is required more than ever. Not only COVID-19 but also other viruses such as MERS and avian flu are transmitted through direct contact. With precaution and vigilance at their highest, the sharing of goods or even just the transfer of goods from person to person is deemed inauspicious. Viruses are known to stay alive on glass, plastics, paper and fabrics for days before causing infections. Shifting to a non-contact and non-encounter lifestyle is inevitable to protect ourselves from infection. First and foremost, we need to change our perspective on disposable items for the benefit of our hygiene. Before the outbreak, there had been pressure on a societal scale to refrain from using disposable items. Cafes were regulated to use mugs instead of plastic cups, and retail chains were not allowed to provide their customers with plastic bags. It was all to reduce the garbage we produce, but lately COVID-19 is now making people more alert, or rather "reluctant" to use products that can be repeatedly used by others. We now are able to ask ourselves: Have regulations to ban the use of disposable products been reasonable after all? Disposable products are of great value in terms of hygiene, unlike reusable products and goods that are upheld for their "environmental" values. Let us not forget almost all items used in clinics and hospitals are disposable. Disposable goods are now an absolute necessity. The rise of life-threatening dangers such as COVID-19 breaks down the logic of environmental protection, for we know life comes before anything else. People do not have to be reminded that the cause for the environment is for the sake of fostering and cherishing of human lives after all. Using disposable products is inevitable if we were to keep ourselves safe. Masks which have become daily commodities are disposable, too. Antibacterial film is dispatched on every part of our daily goods on which people lay their hands: door knobs, bus handles and lift buttons. Cafes use plastic cups instead of the mugs. With increasing demand for meal deliveries and online shopping, disposable dishes and vinyl wraps are used more frequently than ever. Some countries have even banned bringing bags to shopping malls and using mugs at cafes. Further means and changes to create room for the use of disposable products can be easily expected. It almost seems the goal of protecting environment had been blinding us from considering other perspectives. It is important to be aware of environmental causes, but it cannot surpass the means to save lives and keep ourselves clean and safe. Environmental regulations such as simply banning disposable items should be revised for the benefit of freer choice for the individual. By that way can we truly be responsible to make a choice for our own safety and hygiene. Freedom should start from "freedom to choose" and take responsibility for it. COVID-19 unveiled the huge inefficiencies in environmental regulations. With the wide spread of COVID-19, local governments have temporarily alleviated their reining in of restrictions on the use of disposable products. Easing the grip of regulations whenever there is an emergency is highly inefficient, and rather hinders the flexibility in which the market can respond to fighting it off. Moreover, with the minds of consumers now way more conscious about using utensils others have used, rolling back to the previous environmental policy on disposable items will bring about complaints and opposition from the public. Preparations for a whole new standard of hygiene are required in environmental policies. Naturally decomposable plastics are good alternatives which are both hygienic and cost-effective. Research on thin and functional mask filters, and increasing the recycling of disposable items can come in many creative and innovative ways. With much greater demand for disposable items, stopping the use of the items will only increase the social cost, and fail in terms of protecting the environment. Using disposable items will be able to secure personal hygiene and environmental protection at once. Kwack Eun-kyoung (rollypop55@gmail.com) is manager of the Economic Policy Department of the Center for Free Enterprise (CFE).

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