Backlash against plastics had, perhaps, been the area of most progress against climate change and environmental destruction so far. Visceral photos of bottles strewn across pristine beaches and straws getting stuck in marine animals led, in part, to progressive policies that banned or increased the cost of single-use plastics. Then COVID-19 happened.
As governments, hospitals and individuals scrambled to limit the spread of the virus, enormous volumes of plastics were purchased. Masks and gloves to reduce the risk of transmission became priorities as countries rushed to secure PPE to protect key workers. Researchers estimate that 129 billion face masks and 65 billion gloves are used every month, much of which is mismanaged. This creates a unique challenge. For most people, washable or reusable masks suffice, but for health and social care workers directly in contact with COVID patients, single-use equipment is essential. Yet, the vast majority of it cannot be recycled due to potential biohazards. Some will be burned (creating its own environmental issues), most will end up in landfill and, concerningly, much of it will likely contaminate waterways.
This is especially disastrous when we consider that pre-COVID models already project there to be more plastic than fish by weight in 2050. Now, we’re seeing additional pandemic pollution. In February, dozens of face masks washed up on a small stretch of beach on uninhabited islands in Hong Kong, highlighting the impact of humans extending far beyond where they actually live. In the UK, scientists recorded a flow of 94,000 microplastics per second in the Thames — one of the highest levels of pollution in the world. Careless disposal has exacerbated this. Ocean charities state that swathes of plastic items are finding their way to beaches and polluting the sea, with Surfers Against Sewage claiming that businesses are reverting to damaging pre-pandemic practices. The charity seeks to showcase those responsible for pollution through a ‘Return to Offender’ campaign on social media. A recent report estimated that Italy alone needs one billion masks and 500 million pairs of gloves every month, with WWF noting, “if even only one per cent of the masks [in Italy] were disposed of incorrectly and perhaps dispersed in nature, this would result in 10 million masks per month in the environment.” This may not be deliberate. In regions with open waste areas, all it takes are strong gusts of wind to spread these items far and wide.
Greater Single-Use Use
However, it’s not just PPE. The tsunami of demand for takeout food combined with a level of demand for home deliveries that helped Amazon earn an eye-watering $88.9 billion in revenue in the second quarter of this year, and the mountains of waste build up with limited space to stick it. This trend is likely to continue, with one study expecting the plastic packaging market to grow by 5.5% and possibly even up to 9.2%. To compound these troubling statistics, the price of plastic production has fallen too. In March, the price of oil collapsed as a result of too much supply with nowhere to put it. Grounded flights and less car travel meant demand plummeted. As most plastics are largely derived from oil, manufacturing plastic goods became considerably cheaper. This makes it economically unsustainable for many companies to buy and reuse recycled plastic and for recycling facilities to process waste.
Equally, at the start of the pandemic, it was thought that using more single use plastic could limit virus transmission via touch. Although scientists and doctors later explained reusable containers are safe, many shops, cafes and supermarkets had already banned them. In the UK, the government gave supermarkets the option to not impose the 5p charge for single-use bags until October — a levy that had previously reduced use by 90%. The proposed ban on straws was also postponed until recently. Several US states halted their own progressive plastic laws. In California, legislation on plastics reversed course. The 2014 law banning single-use plastic bags was suspended, resulting in approximately 500 million extra bags each month. This has opened the door for pro-plastic organisations and lobbyists to regain a greater foothold in areas where they had lost ground in recent years. They continue to push the supposed importance to society to governments in hope of the temporary suspension becoming permanent.
The convenience of plastics ensures its longevity, but there are opportunities to reduce their environmental damage. Many investment opportunities exist, especially regarding the end of the plastic lifecycle. Currently, only around 10-15% of plastics are recycled; the figure must rise dramatically if we are to ensure proper disposal and recycling of single use plastics. HSBC notes the need for investing in recycling infrastructure, specifically highlighting China’s move to limit importing plastic waste, therefore making countries treat waste themselves. HSBC believes “this may lead to company and state upgrades in recycling techniques.” Equally, opportunities for enhancing plastic waste-to-energy would reduce waste while producing electricity, fuel and biochar. They also highlight that “if done correctly, this process produces fewer emissions than through incineration.” Currently, costs remain a barrier to entry, with only around 3% of power generation coming from this method. Nevertheless, as it is still in relevant infancy, the opportunities for growth are significant.
While the pandemic temporarily reduced emissions and reduced air pollution, plastic pollution is on the rise. Nonetheless, PPE will stick around for the foreseeable future, and rightly so. Focusing on health and limiting the spread of the virus must be the priority but a delicate balance must be struck to avoid compromising long-term planetary health. Safety and sustainability do not need to conflict.