COVID-19 and plastic use

The desire to curb our use of plastic waste globally is nothing new, however the advent of COVID-19 is, and with it came a new ultra-reliance on single-use plastics that has driven consumption off-the-scale when compared to legacy behaviours.

Virus impact

As of October 2, 2020, global cases of COVID-19 reached 34 million, and the death toll exceeded 1 million. The severity of the pandemic is certainly witnessed in the statistics, and as such we’ve had to evolve quickly, implementing new measures that minimise our exposure to the risks associated with this new global threat.

PPE use

One such response has involved the mass adoption of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), essentially inexpensive overwear designed to put an effective barrier between us and the virus. The extent of this has become so great that the World Health Organisation (WHO, 2020) estimates that worldwide healthcare workers now require 89 million medical masks, 76 million examination gloves, and 1.6 million goggles every month to respond to COVID-19 effectively. More broadly, the monthly consumption is even more staggering, with an estimated 129 billion face masks and 65 billion gloves being used every 30 days worldwide. Shockingly, the current consumption of facemarks would cover the country of Wales within 6 months (Joan.C et. at., 2020).

Plastic content

The scale of the issue is monumental, particularly when you consider that most PPE is essentially a mix of malleable polymers, which are used once and then discarded; however the plastic components have a follow-on lifespan that can exceed hundreds of years. As we know too well, the degradation of plastic in landfill, on beaches, or indeed on our ocean floors creates micro-plastics, these quickly contaminate land masses and water sources and in turn enter the food chain where they are consumed by animals and humans alike - with a multitude of consequences (Oluniyi O. Fadare and Elvis D. Okoffo, 2020) I’m sure you read our earlier blog last month that reported the average human consumes 5 grams of plastic every week, the equivalent of ingesting a credit! (WWF, 2019).

The extent of this new plastic crisis has been highlighted frequently in global reporting. One such report confirmed that 2020 is already on track to produce 30 percent more waste than in 2019 (Ford, 2020). Another confirmed that during the height of the outbreak, medical waste in Wuhan, China soared to 240 tonnes per day (relative to 40 tonnes per day in previous periods (Yu Jing, 2020)). Plastic waste across the whole of Thailand, is also said to have reached 6,300 tonnes per day, up from from 5,500 (TEI 2020) - an increase that was largely attributed to a growing reliance on food delivery services to doorsteps.

This fast food mindset spread quickly across the globe. Even before the pandemic took hold, the U.K reported that 60 percent of people aged 18 to 24 had already increased the frequency of home food delivery by March 2020 in light of a looming lockdown (Statistica, 2020).

Furthermore, in the early stages of lockdown, some retail outlets which previously mandated the use of reusable shopping bags started to prohibit customers from bringing in their own bags for grocery packing through fear of cross contamination. Similarly, the use of personal coffee cups were banned for similar reason, further fuelling the reliance on single use consumables.

Stalled momentum

Above are just some examples of how our reliance on single-use consumables have increased, but unfortunately as consumption increases so does the unsustainable disposal of these items. Before the pandemic, global efforts that drove a shift towards biodegradable alternatives to plastic were underway. Unfortunately, that drive now appears to have halted in earnest given the prioritisation of needs. These efforts now need to be recommenced, not least as we don’t know for sure when normality will commence again - or indeed whether it ever will. This level of uncertainty should hasten our ability to adopt a more sustainable approach even when immersed in adversity.

What can we do?

There are a number of actions that we as consumers can take immediately, ranging from the use of reusable or biodegradable face masks (a company in France is now making masks from hemp (WEF 2020)), or demanding cardboard packaged food items when seeking home delivery to our doors. Similarly, advances in medical support infrastructure now means that routine checkups can be undertaken remotely, without the need for face to face consultations, an approach that reduces the need for PPE use in hospitals and local medical facilities.

Small changes, big impact

Without delving too deep into the science, it’s fair to say that PPE remains an effective control in the fight against COVID-19, and with this comes an inevitable reliance on plastic. However, now we’ve had the chance to consolidate somewhat, we should be seeking out alternatives to plastic where they are available. What we do next in this space will undoubtedly require an incredible amount of balance, but this action will be felt by the generations that follow us.

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References:

WHO (2020): Shortage of personal protective equipment endangering health worker worldwide. Retrieved from: https://www.who.int/news-room/detail/03-03-2020-shortage-of-personal-protective-equipment-endangering-health-workers-worldwide

Joan.C et. at., 2020: COVID-19 Pandemic Repercussions on the Use and Management of Plastics. Retrieved from: https://pubs.acs.org/doi/10.1021/acs.est.0c02178

Oluniyi O. Fadare and Elvis D. Okoffo (2020):Covid-19 face masks: A potential source of microplastic fibres in the environment. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7297173/

David Ford (2020): COVID-19 Has Worsened the Ocean Plastic Pollution Problem. Retrieved from: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/covid-19-has-worsened-the-ocean-plastic-pollution-problem/

Yu Jing (2020): How Wuhan copes with mountains of medical waste. Retrieved from: https://news.cgtn.com/news/2020-03-17/How-Wuhan-copes-with-its-mountains-of-medical-waste--OUxhr4jW1i/index.html

TEI (2020): Asia Food delivery services add tonnes of plastic to Thailand’s landfills during COVID-19 crisis. Retrieved from: http://www.tei.or.th/en/highlight_detail.php?event_id=651

Statistica (2020): Use of food delivery services. Retrieved from: https://www.statista.com/statistics/1107212/covid-19-food-delivery-frequency-in-great-britain/

World Economic Forum (2020): This French firm is making biodegradable face masks using hemp. Retrieved from: https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/09/hemp-france-face-masks-coronavirus-covid-pandemic

OceanAsia (2020): No shortage of surgical masks at the beach. Retrieved from: https://oceansasia.org/beach-mask-coronavirus/

BBC (2020): Coronavirus: French alarm at Covid-linked Med pollution. Retrieved from: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-52807526

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