Plastic waste in the COVID era
Before the pandemic, a lot of progress was made in reducing plastic waste worldwide. The ‘Blue Planet effect’ started making an impact and raising awareness for many people all over the world about plastic waste.
Single-use products are back
On the official Coronavirus (COVID-19) FAQ page, the Center for Disease Control reports, "There is still a lot that is unknown about COVID-19 and how it spreads. Coronaviruses are thought to be spread most often by respiratory droplets." They go on to say that it is unlikely spread by mail, products, or packaging but precautions should be taken when touching surfaces, then touching the eyes, mouth or nose.
Due to the possibility of spreading the virus through touching surfaces, reusable products have been banned in several places such as cafes, supermarkets, and restaurants. Single-use products seem to be safer as they are only used once and then they can get thrown away. But something feels really wrong throwing away an item every time we use it. What's about all this waste? Why do we act like plastic is our best friend now after all this effort to ban plastics and protect the environment? We can manage public health to reduce transmission while still keeping the environment in mind.
COVID-19 and quarantines have increased use of plastic since the beginning of the year; masks and gloves used for protection, plastic cups for take away, tons of hand sanitizer bottles used then tossed—all of those are made of plastic.
These products go into landfills and many times end up in the oceans. But these are not the only places you will spot them. How many times have you seen masks and gloves down on the street? People throw them away or the wind blows them from the trash. We certainly need to take precautions in order to reduce and prevent the spread of COVID but it is also worth taking into consideration ways that reduce unnecessary waste production.
Do we really need single-use items?
Greenpeace made a statement in July 2020 that we can all use reusable items as long as we wash them carefully. According to their statement, they suggest that we don't need to wear gloves when we go outside, we just need to wash or sanitize our hands right after. Each month of the pandemic, 129 billion disposable masks and 65 billion disposable gloves are used. Single-use is the easiest option but also the worst we can choose. As Dr. Saulo Delfino Barboza says, our health depends on our planet’s health. Single-use materials go into our oceans, air, and soil which harm the planet’s health, and therefore, our health too.
Single-use masks are made of polypropylene (PP) plastic which can’t be recycled. It takes hundreds of years to break down and waste keeps going into the water, impacting fish populations and trashing our waters.
Welsh government is trying to reduce waste and aims to send zero waste to landfills by 2050 as well as recycling 70% of its waste. The government made clear that disposable masks cannot be recycled and mentioned that plastic waste will outlive the pandemic.
Micheal Oshman, the CEO of Green Restaurant Association, tries to find better solutions than single-use products. As he suggested, restaurants could use disposable packaging with high post-consumer waste or use a QR code for customers to read their menu instead of using disposable ones.
Plastic waste in numbers
Let’s see some numbers and get an idea of the waste that is made in the last months, shall we?
- According to Thailand Environmental Institute, 1.5 million face masks are being disposed of every day in the country.
- Plastic pollution is expected to get increased by 40% in the next decade.
- Global sales of disposable face masks were $800 million in 2019 and $166 billion in 2020, according to Grand View Research.
- Singapore’s eight week lockdown led to 1470 tons of plastic waste from take-out packaging and food delivery alone.
What could change?
There are many alternatives to single-use products: reusable masks that we wash carefully, refilling hand sanitizer bottles, washing our hands instead of using plastic gloves, and using our own reusable cups and bags (if your region allows you to use them at grocery stores and other public places).
Companies are even trying to find brand new alternatives such as face masks from organic materials like coffee. Yes, coffee, you heard it right! A Vietnamese company created the first biodegradable face masks from coffee in the world. This mask offers full protection and is also suitable for sensitive skins.
What we want to say is that there are always new ways—we just need to be creative. A little more intentional effort to reduce long term environmental impact will lead to a healthier and cleaner world. We're sure it is worth it!
Are you an environmental organizer or activist? Join WeAct to manage effective communications, assign tasks, complete projects, and much more.