The plastic pandemic
Walking outside for my permitted daily exercise, I noticed that, along with the usual crisp packets, cigarette butts and fast food packaging, a new item was now plaguing the neighbourhood’s street verges; the disposal mask. As I stared down at the masks covered in mud and trampled on, I suddenly realised that the lasting impacts of the Covid-19 Pandemic were not only to be economic and social but also environmental. Like so many at the moment, my thoughts had been diverted to other issues. But now with a hopeful light at the end of the tunnel, maybe it's the time to question our use of single use plastic in this pandemic and the legacy that it is creating.
Between February and July 2020 more than two billion items of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) were distributed across England to health and social care services. An additional 28 billions items were ordered overall, with the vast majority of these being Single Use Plastic (SUPs) items1 . Although vital for the safety of our health practitioners, this has been an exponential increase from the 2.5 billion items that were used in the whole of 20192. Furthermore, due to the potentially infectious nature of the used items, recycling options are slim and the vast majority of these single use plastic masks will end up in landfills.
As well as PPE items in hospitals and health care, the use of SUPs has increased in our daily lives. It is estimated that if everyone in the UK used one single use plastic mask a day, it would generate an extra 60,000 tonnes of contaminated plastic waste in a year3. There have also been subtle changes in our lifestyle as well. For example, supermarkets shut their fresh meat, fish and cheese counters, instead directing their customers to pre-packaged plastic items3. The demand for hand sanitizer bottles, takeaway containers and bubble wrap for increased online shopping has exploded. The British Plastics Federation has announced that supplies of plastic packaging for food and drink, bleach, soap and medicines were operating at record capacities. This is particularly worrying as the plastic packaging items, just like the PPE, are hard to recycle and also often end up in landfills or the environment.
Even the humble reusable coffee cups have not been spared the covid treatment. Once a stable item in every eco friendly coffee lovers bag, these are now being rejected across the country, due to safety fears. These fears have persisted despite the Food Standards Agency (FSA) reporting that the likelihood of catching Coronavirus from exposure to food packaging is extremely low4. Furthermore, research shows that COVID-SARS can last longer on plastic than other material such as cardboard, so alternatives should be investigated3.
Additionally, the pandemic caused issues with recycling globally. Coca-Cola reported that it missed its target to get recycled plastic into half of its UK packaging due to COVID-19 delays. This is particularly concerning since Coca-Cola has been in the top three largest plastic polluters for the previous two years5. Globally plastic reduction policies have been postponed due to the pandemic6. In the UK the ban on plastic straws, stirrers and cotton buds was delayed by 6 months7.
Without proper management and disposal of these plastics, these items will end up in the environment, which can not only threat wildlife but can cause sewage system blockages, affect water and soil quality and even result in floods3,6. Worryingly, plastic debris in aquatic environments can provide breeding grounds for vectors of zoonotic diseases, resulting in greater degreation of human health and safety 6.
The pandemic has highlighted the usefulness, benefits but also our reliance on plastic items in the modern world. Therefore, as we come out of this pandemic thought must be directed to the development of eco-friendly solutions such as easier to recycle plastic or plastic made from renewable sources6. There is a need for greater reporting of waste to fully understand the quantity and type that we are producing. This can be used to assess how much material we could be reusing or recycling and what must necessarily go to landfill. This is extremely important with medical waste as it should be carefully monitored to guarantee safety and disinfection techniques to reuse items could be used to decrease waste production as well as ensuring necessary supplies of equipment3.
In recent years the impact of our actions on the environment have become a key public focus and the use of SUPs are a clear visible example of the damage we are causing. The recent increase in plastic will hopefully just be a temporary blip in the fight against plastic and unnecessary waste. The UK government has been promising a Green recovery and realigning our behaviours to combat waste and become more sustainable should be at the heart of this. Health and safety should be at the absolute priority in a global pandemic and SUPs play a vital role in this. However, we must start to recognise that human health is dependent on our environment and requires a healthy ecosystem to function3. When these systems suffer, we are in turn causing greater suffering to ourselves and our future.
How can we reduced the impact of plastic we using:
- Continue to use your reusable cups, shopping bags and cutlery, with good hygiene practices
- Choose a reusable mask over a single use mask where possible and use PPE appropriately
- Brush up on your knowledge and spend some time researching what you can recycle on your kerbside
- Support local businesses- maybe try a milk delivery , which usually uses glass bottles or see if you have a refill shop locally
- Conduct your own beach/park clean
- When shopping online, request less or no plastic packaging.
Due to the Pandemic, the rate at which we are depositing into landfills is likely to increase, at a time where landfill capacity is diminishing. Landfills sites can pose a contaminative risk as they produce contaminative leachate and gas which can move through soil and some type of rock. Furthermore, a property built upon a historical landfill may experience structural and subsidence problems if these issues were not considered during construction. Therefore, being aware if your property was built in close proximity to a landfill is something to consider as part of your property transaction. Environmental data within a Groundsure report provides information from the Environment Agency, local authorities and OS historical maps regarding landfill sites around the UK.
3. Increased plastic pollution due to COVID-19 pandemic: Challenges and recommendations, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1385894720328114
5. Special Report: Plastic pandemic - COVID-19 trashed the recycling dream, https://www.reuters.com/article/uk-health-coronavirus-plastic-recycling-idUKKBN26Q1L7
6. A.L. Patrício Silva, J.C. Prata, T.R. Walker, et al., Rethinking and optimising plastic waste management under COVID-19 pandemic: Policy solutions based on redesign and reduction of single-use plastics and personal protective equipment, Science of the Total Environment (2018), https://doi.org/10.1016/j.scitotenv.2020.140565