Plastic waste related to Coronavirus has sparked a new threat to the natural environment in recent times. Plastic pollution has plagued our world for more than a century from microbeads, cigarette butts to plastic bottles and bags.
All over the world, Coronavirus related lockdowns have had a positive effect on the environment. From clear blue skies due to reduction in light and air pollution, clear water bodies marking a return of freshwater aquatic organisms, to the prominence of urban wildlife in cities, and decrease of fossil fuel burning. The excessive use of gloves, masks, and personal protective equipment (PPE) due to the coronavirus pandemic has revived one of the most challenging problems of our modern world – plastic waste.
The history of plastic can be traced back to 1839, when Charles Goodyear developed vulcanized rubber and Eduard Simon discovered Polystyrene. But it was not until 1909, when the first true plastic – Bakelite, was created by a chemist named – Leo Hendrik Baekeland. Since 1909, the race for discovering and inventing plastic continued and has plagued the natural environment ever since. From 1950 till the present day, approximately 8.3 billion metric tons of virgin plastics have been produced worldwide.
It can take 50 to 600 years for plastic to degrade depending upon the type of plastic, it chemical composition, and the environment it is in. Less than 20% of plastic waste produced is either recycled or incinerated, the remaining 80% goes to landfills or as litter in the natural environment. Since 2010, the petrochemical industry invested about $200 billion, with $100 billion more planned to be spent, plastic waste is expected to increase by 40%, according to The Guardian.
Plastic waste and the environment
The relationship between plastic waste and the environment has been clearly defined in the last few decades. Plastic waste adversely affects humans, wildlife, and the ecosystem. Plastic waste has been categorized into 5 distinct groups based on their sizes, namely; mega-plastic (>10 cm) macro-plastic (2 – 10 cm), meso-plastic (2 cm – 5 mm), micro-plastic (5mm – 1 nm), and nano-plastic (< 1 nm).
High-income countries generate more plastic waste but have efficient waste management systems and technology. Meanwhile, low-income countries are also producing plastic waste but have little to no technology and finance to manage and recycle waste.
Coronavirus plastic waste – a new menace
Coronavirus quarantine measures has improved our natural environment around the world. But amid this crisis it is important to remember that a lot of the personal protective equipment (PPE), like gloves and masks along with other necessary medical equipment are plastic based, and much of it is being thrown carelessly away. PPE when discarded in public areas ends up blocking drains ans ends up into waterways. Moreover, plastics industry has endorsed the utilization of single-use plastics as the safest choice during the pandemic.
Latest research shows that COVID-19 can stay on the surface of plastic and stainless steel for up to 72 hours after its initial contact, which entails that paper bags might be less risky than plastic ones. Plastic being a hotbed for the spread of Coronavirus hasn’t stopped the public to buy single-use plastic bags, bottled water, plastic packaging and PPE.
Most restaurants and food retailers can only offer home delivery or takeaway in plastic packaging, leading to a rise in plastic waste. Demand for sanitation products like, disposable wipes, hand sanitizers, gloves, cleaning agents, and masks is at a record high. Unfortunately, these products also being thrown out in unprecedented volumes.
In order to stop the spread of the virus tonnes of medical waste is being generated. For example, hospitals and other medical facilities have been advised to double-bag clinical waste from COVID-19 patients, as an additional safety measure, which adds to the plastic waste problem. Meanwhile, issues with plastic waste management and recycling are increasing due to the closure of recycling sector, which means an excess of waste with no proper measures for disposal.
Waste that has come in contact with quarantine centers/hospitals is to be collected, stored, and disposed off separately than traditional plastic or hospital waste. PPE and other medical equipment that are made from plastic are important for protecting doctors, nurses and paramedics, the present pandemic has reminded us how much waste we produce and how we manage or mismanage it.
Environmentalist from the Ocean Conservancy are concerned that if temporary rollbacks to plastic bans become permanent, it would undermine all the efforts to reduce single-use plastics and will lead to a rise in ocean plastic pollution. Plastics in the ocean are among the deadliest forms of marine debris and can last for decades and sometime even longer in the marine environment.
Plastic waste & its impact on wildlife
In Greece, residents of the coastal city – Kalamata, are allowed to go outside for short exercise or grocery shopping. But discarded gloves, wipes and bottles of sanitizer are strewn across parks, sidewalks and roads, as people try to protect themselves and others from infection. Similar waste mismanagement has also been observed in big metropolitan cities like London and New York. Anastasia Miliou, a marine biologist and research director with the AIMC, Greece said “When it rains in Greece the masks thrown on the streets end up in to the sea, as the country suffers from waste management problems, PPE and other plastic waste eventually ends up in nature.”
Plastic waste has also been found in the uninhabited Soko Islands near Hong Kong. Gary Stokes from an environmental organization – OceansAsia discovered about 100 masks washed up over the course of three visits to the beach. While littering is rarely observed in a place like Hong Kong, Gary Stokes believes that masks could reach the sea through a number of ways. “People walking on the street pull out their wallets and a mask accidentally falls on the street, even the masks thrown in garbage could make its way to water-bodies as masks are lightweight and can easily be blown away by wind,” he explained.
“Pink dolphins and green turtles arrive in Hong Kong waters,” said Stokes. “A recently published research shows that when plastic is left in the water long enough, it smells like food to turtles due to the growth of algae and bacteria on it.”
“We have never seen this many masks before in such a remote location, we suspect that these makes came from nearby Honk Kong or China” said Stokes. “When we found them, it only had been six to eight weeks since people had started using these masks.”
A ray of hope
Despite the fact that PPE used in hospitals and quarantine centers is mostly non-recyclable or non-reusable, sustainable innovations are emerging in the world. Ford, an American car manufacturing company is involved with the production of reusable gowns from air bag materials that can be washed up to 50 times, while the University of Nebraska is also testing to see whether UV light will decontaminate and increase the life of medical masks.
Some food retailers and restaurants have take extra measures to lessen their environmental impact during the pandemic. For example, Bonnie Cafe in Australia temporarily banned the used of reusable plastic cups, while Starbucks and Coffee Club also banned the use of reusable cups. Boomerang Alliance’s Plastic Free Places program has launched a guide for cafes and restaurants during the pandemic. It educates the general public on how to avoid single-use plastics, and which environmental friendly packaging is available for use.