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Plastic Waste During Covid-19

By: Adi Gaskell, Contributor

Throughout the covid-19 pandemic, considerable concern has been raised about shortages in the supply of personal protective equipment (PPE), especially for those in front-line healthcare roles.  The huge increase in demand created all too evident challenges for the supply chain, with many new providers entering the market, and concerns emerging about the quality as well as the quantity of many garments.

Masks, visors and other protective garments have been lauded for their ability to keep services running and staff protected during the pandemic.  They’ve also been a trigger for a surprising amount of innovation, with companies such as Ferrari, Apple and LVMH pivoting production to support the provision of PPE.

As we begin to emerge from the worst periods of the pandemic, however, attention is beginning to turn to the legacy of this huge production of equipment, as the waste produced by this mountain of disposable equipment begins to dawn on society.

At first, the evidence was quite visceral, as the “recovery” of nature in the early weeks of the pandemic was juxtaposed with masks and gloves casually discarded in public areas, resulting in clogged drains and polluted waterways.  There have also been concerns among environmentalists that the plastics industry has used the crisis to push back many of the environmental measures that had been designed to reduce the plastic pollution that campaigners such as David Attenborough had so beautifully promoted over the last few years.

Single-use plastic bans that had been implemented to tackle the scourge of drinks bottles, plastic shopping bags, and coffee cups were repealed, with some grocery retailers even forbidding shoppers from bringing reusable bags to stores.

Add in that many recycling and waste services have been limited by the social distancing measures implemented to tackle the spread of the virus, and the challenges faced are all too evident.  It’s perhaps no surprise, therefore, that the Ocean Conservatory worries that this shift back to plastic could undermine the huge efforts to reduce plastic pollution in our oceans.

A forgotten war

The United Nations estimate that around 13 million tons of plastic waste is dumped into the oceans every year, with estimates that around half of this is from single-use items.  In Italy alone, the Polytechnic of Turin estimated that they were getting through 1 billion masks and half a billion gloves every month.  

In the UK, an estimated 761 million pieces of PPE have been distributed since February, adding considerably to the 12 billion pieces of single-use plastic that are predicted to end up in either landfill or the natural environment by 2050.  It’s a situation that led the WWF to warn that if just 1% of these masks were not correctly disposed of, it would result in around 10 million masks per month polluting the environment.

What alternatives are there?  A Plastic Planet has been working with Transcend Packaging and Reelbrands to develop PPE that is free from plastic.  Their core product is a visor that is certified to circular economy standards and made from a combination of PEFC cellulose and FSC paper, which makes the visor capable of being either compostable at home, or recyclable in your neighborhood recycling program.  The consortium aims to provide reliable and scalable protective equipment without polluting the planet for years to come.

“We wanted to lead by example and show that we can protect ourselves and protect our planet,” they explain. “We can no longer sacrifice nature without consequence. The public backs a green recovery from the pandemic because quite simply, we cannot self-isolate or vaccinate against the climate crisis.”

They are producing around one million of their plastic-free visors each week to organizations such as the National Health Service, with the visors collected after use through a partnership with TerraCycle to enable them to be safely recycled or composted.

Circular solutions

Others are looking at the way we dispose of the PPE as much as the way it’s produced and used.  The University of Plymouth’s Richard Thompson, who first coined the term ‘microplastics’, urges governments not to delay giving people the equipment they need to stay safe, and suggests instead that more advice should be given on the safe disposal of them.

Thompson believes that if products are designed correctly in the first place then that can go a long way towards reducing the amount of pollution that ends up in the ocean.  This circular philosophy is not really followed in the production of PPE today.  For instance, the face masks bought from China are often made of a range of different materials and polymers, which makes it harder to recycle.

For instance, Claudia Brunori from Italy’s Energy and Sustainable Economic Development agency argues that all PPE products should be made using the same polymer to help make recycling and disposal easier.  This is a practice that happens at a local level, but it has not been sufficiently scaled up to make a substantial dent internationally.

The EU had attempted to seize the momentum created by Attenborough et al when its single-use plastics directive was drafted to tackle marine litter.  The regulation covered a ban on many single-use plastics, but failed to cover the PPE used throughout the pandemic.  It’s also under pressure by industry to unpick the regulation, with the European Plastics Convertors calling for the regulation to be put back by a year as a result of the pandemic..

It remains to be seen just what kind of focus will be given to plastics after the pandemic, but even in the midst of the crisis, it’s important that decisions aren’t made that society learns to regret in years to come.  The issues surrounding plastic waste have not gone away, and it’s vital that the lifesaving equipment required during the crisis does not compromise such a vital part of the planet’s ecosystem.  We can, and should, strive to save both.

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