By Anna Rauter

Post sunset, but not post-plastic? A single-use coffee cup at the beach – unfortunately an all too frequent sight.
Photo by Author

It is 8 am on a Sunday morning and I am on the phone with a friend in the process of organising a daytrip to the beach. Wanting a break from the busy city life in Athens, my friend took the island ferry to Crete to spend a long weekend at his parent’s summer house. We thought that today would be a good chance for us to catch up over a swim. “Which beach do you suggest we go to today?” he asks. This is a decision we don’t take light-heartedly and which is carefully considered based on wind, cloud, and tourist calibrations. Based on today’s weather forecast and in anticipation of a beautiful sunset, we eventually decide to go to the island’s Western-most beach where the red, flaming sun is bound to set into the distant horizon amidst the calm sea in the evening.

“Would you like me to pick you up so we can ride there together?”, my friend asks. The question immediately makes me feel uneasy. For me, an inner conflict emerges: on the one hand I am always in favour of carpooling – particularly in Crete where public transport to the island’s many remote destinations is often not an option. On the other hand, I worry about being infected with COVID-19; my friend is a teacher and meets dozens of people on daily basis, he also just used an overnight ferry where – in the shared sitting spaces and canteen – he could have easily become infected by any number of potential COVID-positive strangers. After a few seconds of silence and some static crackling on the phone line, I hear a “hello…?” on the other end. Still caught up in my thoughts, I reply: “Uh, yeah. Sorry, why don’t we just meet at the beach?”. 40 minutes and two separate car-rides across the island later, we have both reached our destination – COVID-safe, but environmentally unsound.

Over the past few months, I have on many occasions been confronted with a new dilemma: the often-irreconcilable aim of being both COVID-safe and acting in an environmentally sustainable way. While my family and I share one car and try as much as possible to use the vehicle together, I find myself driving much more in general than I did before the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic. Up until February I lived in Oslo and relied on public transportation. However, now residing in Crete with the context of COVID-19, I choose to use our family vehicle when I want to meet a person outside of our household. Whilst the Greek government has put legislation in place surrounding car-pooling (people sharing a vehicle with persons outside their household must wear a mask), I tend to feel safer driving by myself and meeting people at the destination (not least because most of the people around me either do not like wearing a mask, do not think that a mask helps, or simply do not believe in COVID-19 at all, and hence would not agree to car-pool with a mask on). In (unfortunately) confirming the assertation of my previous blog post, where I argued that a sense of personal immediacy is one of the reasons why the COVID-19-crisis has seen a more immediate response than the climate crisis, I have to admit that – particularly in instances such as public transportation or carpooling – my concern over my current personal safety outweighs my concern over the climate and environmental future.

When the coronavirus pandemic first led to widespread lockdowns causing people to stay at home and drastically decrease their use of transportation of all kinds – public, private, bus, car, plane – many hoped that one good thing that would come of this pandemic would be a decrease in global CO2 emissions. Whilst a drop in emissions was indeed recorded temporarily, emissions post-lockdowns are now reported to be back to their previous (increasing) trajectories (United Nations 2020). As I am observing in my own life, my behaviours are now less sustainable than before the outbreak of the pandemic. And whilst you may feel differently about the safety measures around COVID-19, in any case – whether you are personally worried about being infected with the coronavirus or not – you very likely have been affected by COVID-19 regulations, such as the increased use of face masks and gloves. And how do these coronavirus measures – whether we agree with them or not – affect our sustainability efforts? In my case, not only do I use the car more frequently, I have also started using disposable masks. And – visibly – so have others; not one day goes by where I do not see discarded ‘mask-cadavers’ and ‘glove remnants’ alongside roads and beaches (and I find this puzzling; are we so angry at this virus (or the regulations around it) that we have unlearnt to aim for the rubbish bin?).

Moreover, I have observed an increased use of other single-use plastics. As a post-lockdown celebration, a friend and I treated ourselves to a smoothie at our favourite beach-café . To my surprise I was not only given a cold, delicious pink glass of juice, but got served alongside it a plastic straw! This was not an exception to the rule – no! Indeed, the plastic straw has had a comeback!  When getting a coffee, a juice, or even an alcoholic beverage, restaurants and cafés here on the island opt for individually plastic wrapped, single-use plastic straws as a precautionary hygiene measure. Whilst I too appreciate drinking from a straw (that I myself can take out of its casing) instead of a glass that may or may not have been properly disinfected, I do wonder – are our newfound enviro-climate sensitivities already ‘devolving’ again? Haven’t we only just celebrated the end of plastic straws and other single-use plastics a couple of months ago?

Perhaps however, the previous obsession with banning plastic straws and other single-use plastics was to begin with only a symbolic distraction away from much more deep-rooted environmental issues, which have still not been effectively tackled. It may be precisely because the ‘fight’ against the plastic straw was merely an ornamental, easy fix that it has re-emerged so swiftly in the face of crisis. Rather than seeing the coronavirus pandemic as responsible for increases in unsustainable environmental behaviours then, COVID-19 could help us understand the weaknesses of our sustainability approaches. 

What are your thoughts on the matter? Have you returned to less sustainable practises since the outbreak of COVID-19? And do you think our concern for personal safety in the face of a pandemic is to blame for increasingly unsustainable behaviour, or is the issue more deep-rooted?