Plastic Pollution and the Pandemic: The need for Circularity
by Evelin Földvári
March 2020 – the world shut down, businesses stopped operating, transportation drastically diminished and everyone was forced to stay inside. We are all experiencing a radically new era due to the novel pandemic Covid-19, which has significantly changed both our lifestyles and our consumption habits on a day-to-day basis.
It is clearly important that we all started to live a hyper-hygienic life and became more cautious about where and how we purchase our daily essentials. This has led to an explosion in demand for single-use plastic products, resulting in an immense increase in plastic pollution and a hefty burden on plastic waste management.
To prevent the transmission of coronavirus and to protect the general public, patients, healthcare and service workers, the regular use of face masks, gloves, hand sanitisers and other personal protective equipment (PPE) skyrocketed. According to recent studies, globally we use 3 million masks every minute, which adds up to 129 billion face masks (mostly disposable) every month! (1)
The demand for products in plastic packaging including pharmaceuticals and groceries has also increased. Lockdowns and home quarantining encouraged people to shop online and to get food and groceries delivered to their home more frequently, which has inevitably led to higher plastic waste generation. (2)
In the first half of 2020, 11% more online purchases were made, than in the first half of 2019! (3)
Where does all this single use plastic come from?
Plastics are derived from by-products of petroleum refining and natural gas processing. As oil prices dropped in mid-March last year, so did the costs of virgin plastic production. In a situation like this, sustainable alternatives such as recycled plastics have far less chance to compete, because it is cheaper for manufacturers to buy virgin plastics. Eventually this has affected and disrupted the operations and activities of the recycling industry. (4)
Nevertheless, it was not only the lack of demand for recycled plastics that caused businesses, including Dutch ones, to struggle. (5) By taking the Covid-19 safety rules and regulations that were imposed by governments into consideration – staff reduction and restricted transportation to reduce the chances of viral transmission - the plastic recycling industry has crashed. (2) In some countries, recycling centres simply just had to close or suspend their productions in order to avoid potential infections coming from collecting and sorting waste.
On top of this, many countries lifted their bans on single use plastics (SUPs) in order to tackle the coronavirus crisis and to be able to produce enough protective equipment. (2)
Now, the problem here, is that we already had an unresolved plastic crisis going on way before the outbreak of the pandemic due to mass plastic consumption and poor waste management, and as a result of these recent events, the plastic crisis has sharply accelerated.
Why should we reduce plastic use?
It is important to understand that banning single use plastics and fighting against plastic pollution is not only to protect the environment, ironically, we need reduce our plastic use for our own health too.
Plastic has different stages in its lifecycle, and at every stage we are exposed to several risks. The biggest problem, however, is the release of toxic substances and microplastics.
From refining and production, through usage to disposal, we are constantly being exposed to many different toxic substances that are being released into the air or just onto the surface of plastics. We then either swallow and/or inhale these materials, leading to possible negative impacts on our nervous system, to reproductive and development issues, cancer and leukaemia or even genetic disruptions. (6)
Plastic never actually disappears, rather just degrades into smaller and smaller pieces over time; this is what we refer to as microplastics (microplastics are plastic pieces less than 5 millimetres long (7)). When microplastics enter the human body, it can result in inflammation, oxidative stress or necrosis which can seriously harm our health to the extent of developing cardiovascular disease, cancer or autoimmune conditions. (6)
According to research, we eat approximately 5 grams of plastic each week, which is about the weight of a credit card. (8) This happens because microplastics are being carried by air into our waters and soil, thus entering our food chain and inevitably leading us to actual plastic consumption. Therefore, plastic is harming humanity directly and indirectly too.
So, what can we do?
Since there is no industry in the world that does not involve the use of plastic one way or another, it is hard to eliminate it from our lives. Mainly because of its convenience and now because of its “reassurance” factor too. (2) Nevertheless, it is not impossible and as we are slowly defeating the corona crisis, we should also focus on defeating the plastic challenge.
One way to tackle this issue is by switching from disposables to reusables. The longer we keep the materials in circulation, the less virgin materials we need to bring in and the healthier we can keep our environment and our bodies. Of course, a 100% zero waste lifestyle is not a realistic aspiration for most people. However, wherever we can, we should always try go for the circular option. Or, if there is no sustainable option to choose from, simply just refusing to take a certain product (for example, napkins and cutlery when ordering take away or plastic packaging at groceries) is a very good first step towards a plastic free future.
Luckily governments and municipalities, businesses and suppliers are more and more aware of the need for a circular change and there are certain acts that prove this too. Take the EU plastic ban from July 2021 (9), or the Netherlands’ plan to become fully circular by 2050 (10), as good examples.
Although these are good initiatives, there is still lots to do. We, as consumers, have the power in our hands – we can choose not to trade a balanced ecosystem in the future for plastic convenience today!
(1) University of Southern Denmark. (2021, March 10). Face masks and the environment: Preventing the next plastic problem. ScienceDaily. Retrieved April 12, 2021 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2021/03/210310122431.htm
(2) K.R.Vanapalli et al. (2021). Challenges and strategies for effective plastic waste management during and post COVID-19 pandemic. Science of the Total Environment. 750.
(5) H.B. Sharma, et al. (2020). Challenges, opportunities, and innovations for effective solid waste management during and post COVID-19 pandemic. Resources, Conservation and Recycling. 162.