Remy Harman looks at how plastic usage has changed during Covid-19
The impact of the Covid-19 outbreak has been felt across the entire world. Its devastating consequences are still affecting many, and our day-to-day lives continue with uncertainty. In a bid to reduce the spread of the virus and keep our families safe, face masks and other PPE have become mandatory in specific places. As we abide by these and other regulations, pollution has spiked. Plastic production has escalated to meet public demand for new and clean. We’ve seen our environment suffer as we attempt to protect ourselves, and this will continue if we don’t start making changes now.
“A monthly estimated use of 129 billion face masks and 65 billion gloves globally”1
The use of PPE needed to keep everyone safe increases each month, and the incorrect disposal of the items is showing on local streets, beaches and across oceans. The plastic polymer makeup of standard disposable face masks make them unrecyclable. On top of the negative pollution consequences, PPE has also become one of the biggest dangers to wildlife and aquatic species. It’s predicted that there are more face masks in the ocean now then jellyfish. When the ear loops aren’t cut, animals can get trapped, and other animals, thinking the masks are edible, are suffocating from trying to consume them.
“If every person in the UK used one single-use face mask each day for a year, it would create 66,000 tonnes of contaminated plastic waste”2
The amount of pollution from PPE could be 10 times worse if everyone only used disposable face masks. There will be times when, to protect ourselves, we have to use a disposable mask – maybe in an emergency – but by consciously using reusable masks daily, we can drastically reduce the negative consequences. Our options for reusable masks are constantly increasing. Many retailers are adapting to offer reusable face mask options meaning they are now widely accessible. Entrepreneurs are getting creative with materials and designs to make them both safer and more stylish. From silver ion-treated fabric to nanofibre filters and companies donating funds or masks for any purchase we make, the way the world has acclimatised to this new way of living shows the resilience and adaptability of humanity. Not only are we able to protect ourselves, but we can easily provide those who may be struggling with the protection they need too.
“Coronavirus can survive on skin for 9 hours”3
Although our options for responsible, environmentally friendly face coverings are ever increasing, the new proposed problem is how long the virus can live on skin. Taking decades to break down, disposable gloves were already heading to landfill in their millions before the pandemic. The availability of biodegradable gloves is limited. Gloves made from traditional latex and nitrile release the chemicals acrylonitrile and butadiene into the air as they break down. They’re non-reusable because they can’t come into contact with soap or hand sanitisers without the integrity of the glove being affected.
It still stands that 20 seconds of hand washing is the best prevention against the virus; hand sanitiser follows as the second best option. Alternative products exist for the normal plastic bottles of soap and sanitiser. Over the last decade, we’ve returned to solid soaps as a staple product. Self-cleaning, zero-waste packaging and only natural ingredients make them healthy for our families and the planet. Hand sanitiser, although unable to take a solid form, is following suit in terms of ingredients and conscious packaging. Refillable schemes are on the increase. We are able to purchase these crucial products in a new way that doesn’t pollute our environment. Bottles are produced in plastics that can be recycled or even in safe glass. The sanitisers are manufactured in packaging designed so that consumers can refill their personal bottles before sending it back to the company to be sterilised and reused. Not only do these initiatives reduce waste, but they also have our safety as their top priority.
Online shopping has been transformed by the pandemic, and we have seen an increase in online marketplaces. Although, at times, we haven’t been able to go to our local shops, community spirit has been overwhelming. Fresh produce boxes can be delivered straight to our doors, and zero-waste stores have been able to do door-to-door deliveries, refilling our containers. We haven’t had to compromise on environmental values or on the quality of nutrition and health products for our families.
“The pandemic has intensified a price war between recycled and new plastic, made by the oil industry”4
Due to studies showing that the virus is capable of living on a variety of surfaces for 24 hours, but on plastic for 72 hours, our demand for virgin plastic increased because of the need to be able to throw it away after one use. We saw a dramatic decrease in oil price because of the world stopping, and this reduced the cost for producing virgin plastic. Manufacturers faced the difficult decision of whether they should continue using environmentally friendly, recycled plastic or reap financial gain from the reduction in production costs with virgin plastic. The manufacturing of virgin, single-use plastic is inefficient and ultimately a waste of resources that could be put to better use for creating more environmentally friendly products that can be reused. The necessity of the product outweighed our more conscious practices, and now large and small businesses are fighting over cost.
However, with an increase in online shopping, our options for better have opened up dramatically. Online collectives have formed to bring us a variety of products that aren’t manufactured with plastic, from a wealth of unique brands. If we have larger concerns of potential contamination, we can create our own quarantine spaces for parcels, but we can still maintain our low-waste practices.
In light of community spirit building through online platforms, this year more initiatives and campaigns have either started or seen more backing. Plastic Free July celebrated its 10-year anniversary with a staggering 326 million participants in 177 countries. Many of us found the time to really consider what these things were about. The charity Surfers Against Sewage brought people together in social distancing beach cleans that encouraged the nation to continue going outside while making a difference. Similarly, Beach Guardian are preparing for beach cleans throughout winter as storms wash up more pollution. They have been able to do this because of the number of people who have come forward to be involved this year.
We learned a lot from the first period of lockdown, and it’s important that we don’t forget how visible our stillness was and how it changed our environment. The skies over cities became clearer and fresher as pollution levels from commuting stopped. Waterways became cleaner with less disturbance from boats, and wildlife thrived – able to move freely through towns even, because of the quietness. The breathing space created by lockdown was short-lived, but we know how we can make a difference.
By making conscious decisions about how we protect ourselves and our families, we can individually take responsibility for creating a better environment. By not contributing to PPE waste, by using reusable products, choosing sanitisers that are natural and don’t leave a plastic waste trail, we can help to reduce pollution. We can bring back the sky to our cities and see the clear water and wildlife that has as much of a right as we do to live freely and cleanly on the planet, while keeping ourselves and our families safe.
1. Joana C. Prata, Ana L.P. Silva, Tony R. Walker, Armando C. Duarte, and Teresa Rocha-Santos, ‘Covid-19 pandemic repercussions on the use and management of plastics’, Environmental Science & Technology, 54, 13 (2020), 7760-7765.
2. UCL Plastic Waste Innovation Hub, ‘The environmental dangers of employing single-use face masks as part of a Covid-19 exit strategy’, (April 2020) available at tinyurl.com/PWIH-face-masks.
3. Rachael Rettner, ‘Coronavirus can survive on skin for 9 hours’, Live Science, (October 2020) available at tinyurl.com/livescience-9hours.
4. Joe Brock, ‘Plastic pandemic – Covid-19 trashed the recycling dream’, Reuters, (October 2020) available at tinyurl.com/reuters-plasticpandemic.
Remy Harman is currently based in the South West. She has a keen interest in environmentally friendly, sustainable and conservation-conscious practices. She loves exploring untouched landscapes, with the UK’s national parks among her favourite spots, but she’ll never reject an empty beach! As an eco-enthusiast and coffee obsessive, she’s found a use for her passions and writes articles for eco-friendly brands to promote healthy and sustainable lifestyles.
This feature is published in JUNO Winter 2020. Find out more here.