Early Saturday morning two weeks ago, I replaced my contact lenses with a new pair. Each new lens came in a small plastic container with a metallized cover that had to be pulled off. This package has a very simple purpose. When I take the new lens out of its container, it will be uncontaminated.
The fact that it is single-use and multi-material is irrelevant to that priority. Whether or not that package is reusable, recyclable or made with recycled content is also irrelevant. My eyes don’t know and don’t care. They only know that they can see safely with a new sterile lens. It is then my responsibility to clean and take care of each lens for the next four weeks.
Not long after putting on my new contacts, my wife and I went to our health management organization’s Urgent Care facility. I had a nasty case of cellulitis, a bacterial skin infection. As the nurse took blood samples and then inserted an intravenous therapy (IV) port for a dose of antibiotics, I couldn’t help but notice how most of the medical supplies—needles, ports, IV lines, etc.—came in single-use packages. Some were plastic, some were not. As with the contact lens container, these packages are designed to protect their product and keep it clean. All other considerations, including reusability, recyclability and recycled content, are secondary. As they should be.
Everybody hates plastics these days, or so it seems. You can’t turn around without reading another article denouncing plastic products and the harm they impose on the environment. Single-use plastic packages, in particular, are the target of this ire. However, I suspect that few, if any, of the people denouncing them want to eliminate their use for medical supplies and equipment. Our health is more important than environmental purity.
Ten days after my first visit to Urgent Care, I was speaking on recycling at the Summer Conference of the Maryland Municipal League. One of the exhibitors was a healthcare provider who was giving away long, narrow black cloth bags. Inside the bag was a sealed, transparent plastic sleeve containing two stainless steel metal straws, one straight and one with a bend near the top, and a metal cleaning brush with plastic bristles.
I wondered how the environmental impact of these reusable metal straws compared to their plastic cousins. How many times do they have to be used before their cradle-to-grave environmental impact is less than the single-use plastic straw? I searched the web and found many articles, virtually all of which were full of assertions and woefully short of scientific data. One analysis of a research project, however, completed by Humboldt State University, was far more rigorous in its approach. It did not support replacing plastic straws with stainless steel or glass and was somewhat ambivalent in regard to bamboo straws. Read it and draw your own conclusions.
Of course, I shouldn’t have expected the marketing people who selected the giveaways to have thought at all about sustainable materials management. But I am disappointed that they gave no thought to sanitation and preventing the spread of germs. No instructions were included on how to ensure the reusable straws remain clean after use. The brush, however, implies the user must do something. After all, if the straw is put back in the cloth bag wet, who knows what could grow in that environment.
I’m not bringing this up because I want to make a statement about plastic straw bans. That’s a column for another day. But I am concerned that the wave of anti-plastic and anti-packaging agitation is driven by emotion, not facts. We should rely on scientific data and avoid sweeping statements condemning all plastics or all single-use packages of any material. We must rely on lifecycle data and ensure that we make the right decisions, not those that are politically expedient.
As I said earlier, I don’t expect anyone to support bans on single-use packages for medical supplies, regardless of what they are made from. Let’s use the same rational judgment as we debate plastics and single-use packages. As for my cellulitis, it appears to be fully treated. Getting cellulitis wasn’t on my bucket list. Take it from me, don’t put it on yours.
Chaz Miller is a longtime veteran of the waste and recycling industry. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.