People using more plastic bags than needed when grocery shopping has become a significant source of plastic waste in Hong Kong during the pandemic. Germs can be good for our health, so let’s stop wrapping everything in plastic and embrace bacteria. Photo: Yik Yeung-man
Mouthing Off
by Andrew Sun
Mouthing Off
by Andrew Sun

Hong Kong’s Covid-19 germ paranoia is terrible for the environment. It’s time to embrace bacteria – for your health and the planet’s sake

  • Plastic waste has skyrocketed during the pandemic, with people using too many takeaway food trays and plastic bottles, and wrapping groceries in plastic bags
  • All this is related to a fear of germs, but they can actually be good for our gut health and immune system, so let’s do our planet, and ourselves, a favour

I was shopping at a branch of the Hong Kong supermarket chain Wellcome the other day, and in front of me was a woman with a trolley filled with items that had each been put into their own clear plastic bag – even the sealed products and pre-packaged goods like tubs of yogurt, cartons of milk and tin cans.

Such obscene wastage is common, with people commonly unspooling far more of these see-through produce baggies than they need for their groceries. The reason behind this is a paranoia surrounding germs – and the idea that more bags means less chance of infection.

Over the past couple of years, there’s been a huge amount of waste produced in the form of face masks, alcohol wipes and PPE materials used once and then tossed to end up in landfills.
While this may have been necessary to prevent the spread of a potentially deadly virus, our pandemic practices – including using too many takeaway containers when the city’s restaurants were closed – have undone a lot of environmental progress made in the years before Covid-19.
The transparent produce bags commonly found at supermarkets are being used by some to individually wrap groceries. Photo: SCMP
What’s more, the 50-cent (US$0.06) plastic levy for larger plastic bags is now frequently ignored, with store clerks handing them out without a thought – even with items like bottles of water.
We’re also buying single-use bottles of water because many public water fountains in Hong Kong have been out of service for two years. Can the Leisure and Cultural Services Department please turn these taps back on, or are they worried about weirdos licking water dispensers at playgrounds?
Many Hongkongers have been buying more single-use bottles of water since public water fountains went out of service. Photo: Sam Tsang

Anyway, the point of this rant is that, while it’s important to remain vigilant about harmful diseases, we should really embrace germs again. Unreasonable germaphobia is why our public water fountains have been turned off, and why shoppers feel the need to wrap everything in two or three layers of plastic.

It’s proven that children with pets have stronger immune systems. Exposure to animal fur, saliva and dirt forces the body to work to fight off foreign pathogens. Some scientists believe the rise of so many allergies in Western societies is to do with living in overly sterile environments that weaken people’s unexercised defences.

By similar logic – and science – nutritionists say we can improve our gut health by consuming foods full of good bacteria, like yogurt, kimchi and sourdough bread.

Plastic waste from food containers has increased in Hong Kong during the pandemic, as more people have opted for takeaway and delivered meals over dining in. Photo: Edmond So

I go even further and say you shouldn’t eat too healthily either. If you go through life without exposure to junk food, an accidental encounter with a chicken nugget might make you ill. Well, that’s my excuse and I’m standing by it.

Here’s another fact for all the germaphobes out there. People with chronic stomach infections, colitis, irritable bowels, and other gastrointestinal diseases are now regularly treated with a faecal microbiota transplant. Yes, they take healthy poop bacteria and insert it into the unhealthy patient’s gut. There’s a thought to get anal-retentive about.

So if you think you are doing yourself a favour by wrapping your entire life in plastic, you’re living in a kind of la-la land – and one full of landfills bursting at the seams. Instead of fixating on superficial cleanliness, it might be better for your health to get down and dirty sometimes.