The Plastic Pandemic: Tackling Pollution Amid COVID-19

Written by: Cara Boyd, MMASc



Climate change has taken a back seat to the fight against the world’s newest rival, COVID-19.

Countries have been working tirelessly to tackle COVID-19; however, unsustainable behaviours associated with the effort threaten to further devastate the planet. Plastic has been framed as the ultimate protector against COVID-19, playing a major role in prevention and control measures.1 Whether it is masks, gloves, or countless bottles of hand sanitizer, plastic consumption and waste worldwide have increased significantly in the past few months.2 With increased usage comes increased disposal, which has been largely ineffective due to COVID-related disruptions to waste management systems.3 As the world aims to control one calamity, the plastic pandemic threatens to give rise to an entirely new wave of global devastation.

Since the onset of the pandemic, there has been an unprecedented amount of plastic produced, used, and discarded. On the frontlines, plastic is vital to prevent and control the spread of COVID-19, being a key component of disposable plastic gowns, masks, surgical gloves, and medical equipment, including ventilators and test kits.2,4 Experts recognize that there is a critical role for single-use plastics in the medical setting; however, some countries lack the system’s capacity to dispose of the overabundance of waste.2,5 The Asian Development Bank estimates that Manila, Philippines is producing approximately 309 tons of medical waste each day, which has been piling up in the city’s streets due to insufficient and overburdened waste management infrastructure.2 Many cities lack formal recycling systems and thus rely heavily on the informal networks of waste pickers. However, country-wide lockdowns have made it difficult for both formal and informal waste management networks to maintain collection schedules, lending to widespread plastic pollution.2

Even outside of the healthcare sector, consumers are considering the packaging of products in hard, shiny polymers as essential to their safety. This misconception has been contrived by the plastics industry, as companies continue to conjure fear and uncertainty to exploit the current, lucrative climate for plastic production and consumption.1 In the United States, the Plastics Industry Association wrote to the US Department of Health pleading for a public statement on the health and safety benefits of single-use plastics.1 This department, like many others, is unable to make such statements, seeing as the research invalidates plastic’s “protective” image.6 A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine indicates that the virus, SARS-COV-2, is more stable on plastic than on cardboard, with the virus still living on plastic 72 hours after application.6

Despite findings suggesting that plastic may not be as safe as other materials, countless governments have halted single-use plastic bans, citing the need for “an abundance of caution” as justification.7 Sarah King, head of the oceans and plastics program at Greenpeace Canada, refutes the legitimacy and sustainability of using the precautionary principle when considering plastics.4 She argues that, as the literature states, conscious consumers should be allowed to maintain their waste-free shopping habits because “a cloth bag that is washed regularly is less likely to be contaminated than a plastic one.”4

Regardless of the evidence, retailers and consumers alike maintain that plastic use instills a level of comfort and safety. With many consuming from the comfort of their own homes, delivery services––and the plastic packaging that goes along with them––has created an overwhelming amount of additional waste.2 In Singapore, the country’s 8-week lockdown period saw 1,470 tons of plastic waste generated from takeout packaging and food delivery services alone.2 This unprecedented plastic consumption invites increases in plastic pollution, as discarded masks and other waste fills the streets of nation’s previously leading climate action, like Singapore.2

The sheer volume of waste and insufficient disposal measures pose significant risks to both environmental health and human health. Global plastic production has continued to increase, quadrupling over the past four decades, with COVID-19 providing an additional surge.1 Experts caution that if this trend continues, plastic production will account for 15% of greenhouse gas emissions by 2050––which is equivalent to the entire transportation sector’s emissions.1 Additionally, plastic waste continues to spill over into the world’s ocean, with nearly 8 million tons dumped annually. John Hocevar, oceans campaign director at Greenpeace USA, cautions that the plastic waste produced by the pandemic is particularly problematic for marine life: “Gloves, like plastic bags, can appear to be jellyfish or other types of foods for sea turtles, for example. The straps on masks can present entangling hazards.” Hocevar goes on to explain the direct harm of plastic pollution to human health, as plastic products breakdown and appear in our water, air, and food as bacteria- and chemical-carrying microplastics.1

With the demand for plastics only increasing, the current cycle of production and consumption threatens to derail all progress towards sustainability. The solution, much like those for many of the inadequacies seen in our societies, is to restructure the entire economic system by which we live.8 Experts propose that a circular economy––an industrialized system favouring restoration and regeneration––is the ideal system to ensure sustainability throughout a product’s life cycle.8 A circular economy considers the product’s end state at the beginning of its production, ensuring its ability to be recycled and repurposed following its intended use.8

Globally, less than 10% of the plastic ever produced has been recycled.2 The restructuring of economic systems to favour the sustainable design of materials, products, and businesses can drastically mitigate the effects of a COVID-inflicted surplus in plastic pollution. The urgency of the climate crisis cannot dissipate in light of a new global threat, but rather, the consideration of sustainable, systemic tactics for fighting off one pandemic, can lend to the resolution of another.

References

1. Picheta, R. (4 May, 2020). Coronavirus is causing a flurry of plastic waste. Campaigners fear it may be permanent. CNN. Retrieved from https://www.cnn.com/2020/05/04/world/coronavirus-plastic-waste-pollution-intl/index.html

2. Bengali, S. (13 Jun, 2020). The COVID-19 pandemic is unleashing a tidal wave of plastic waste. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved from https://www.latimes.com/world-nation/story/2020-06-13/coronavirus-pandemic-plastic-waste-recycling

3. Hughes, K. (6 May, 2020). Protector or polluter? The impact of COVID-19 on the movement to end plastic waste. World Economic Forum. Retrieved from https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/05/plastic-pollution-waste-pandemic-covid19-coronavirus-recycling-sustainability/

4. Rabson, M. (23 May, 2020). Plastic bans, environmental monitoring get short shrift during pandemic. CTV News. Retrieved from https://www.ctvnews.ca/sci-tech/plastics-bans-environmental-monitoring-get-short-shrift-during-pandemic-1.4951597

5. Evans, J., Pooler, M., & Hook, L. (31 May, 2020). Pandemic sets back fight against single-use plastic. Financial Times. Retrieved from https://www.ft.com/content/c479a718-36a6-48e2-8632-a77290fc223a

6. The New England Journal of Medicine. (16 Apr, 2020). Aerosol and Surface Stability of SARS-CoV-2 as Compared with SARS-CoV-1. The New England Journal of Medicine. Retrieved from https://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMc2004973

7. Tenenbaum, L. (25 Apr, 2020). The Amount of Plastic Waste Is Surging Because of the Coronavirus Pandemic. Forbes. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/lauratenenbaum/2020/04/25/plastic-waste-during-the-time-of-covid-19/#54e2a1737e48

8. Whiting, K. (23 Jun, 2020). COVID-19: What you need to know about the coronavirus pandemic on 23 June. World Economic Forum. Retrieved from https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/06/covid-19-what-you-need-to-know-about-the-coronavirus-pandemic-on-23-june/