The gust of Coronavirus has flurried plastic waste such as surgical masks, gloves, protective equipment, and body bags all over. The COVID-19 crisis has propelled a rapid expansion of the production of these desperately-needed plastic products, with governments racing to increase their stockpiles and clamoring of residents for their share of supplies.
Although such production is necessary, environmental campaigners fear that these entire plastics end up somewhere, and it is just the tip of an appearing iceberg. The pandemic has caused several severe challenges to their efforts for a reduction in plastic pollution.
During one of the most significant public health crises of modern times, the problems of discarding plastic gloves and masks by the people in cities across the world to essential regulations on the use of plastic being scrapped, rolled back or delayed have taken a back seat.
These new trends could spell years of trouble for our already polluted oceans.
“We know that plastic pollution is a global problem — it existed before the pandemic,” Nick Mallos of US-based NGO Ocean Conservancy tells CNN. “(But) we’ve seen a lot of industry efforts to roll back some of the great progress that’s been made.
“We need to be quite cautious about where we go, post-pandemic,” Mallos adds.
PPE is a new addition to oceans’ plastic burden
Around the world, governments rush to stockpile masks, gloves, visors, and gowns as the coronavirus crisis has sparked personal protective equipment(PPE) arms race. The battle is so intense that some have resorted to international mudslinging.
The face coverings in public, which was once seen as a personal preference with minimal benefit, is now the preferred guidance in the US and much of Europe and a growing number of countries encourage or order their citizens to wear these PPEs.
The immediate impact is clear on streets around the world as the moves are essential from a public health perspective.
“Right outside my house there are discarded gloves and masks all over the neighborhood,” says John Hocevar, oceans campaign director at Greenpeace USA.
“It’s been raining here for two days, so these are very quickly washed down into the sewer. Here in Washington DC, they end up in the Anacostia River, out in the Chesapeake Bay, and then the Atlantic Ocean.”
PPE has posed an additional threat to the world’s oceans that have been choking under the weight of plastic at a rapidly increasing rate.
A 2019 study found that global plastic production has quadrupled over the past four decades, and its authors warned that if that trend continues, the plastics will make up 15% of greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. At present, all the forms of transportation of the entire world account for 15% of emissions.
Other studies have estimated that annually some 8 million tons of plastic junk leaks into the ocean, which is worsening every year.
However, PPE gives rise to unique problems. “The structure of PPE will make it particularly hazardous for marine life,” says Hocevar. “Gloves, like plastic bags, can appear to be jellyfish or other types of foods for sea turtles, for example. The straps on masks can present entangling hazards.”
Over time, those products break down into microplastics and add in the vast collections in our air, food, and seas. On the one hand, we produce and discard plastic to fight one public health crisis, and on the other, we may be slowly contributing to another.
The threats from microplastics to human health are still being studied. One is that when microplastics pass through wastewater plants, they can pick up harmful bacteria and carry them along. If we ingest the plastics, we may ingest the bacteria.
Another threat is that some chemicals added to plastics at the manufacturing stage, and there are chances that these are released in the body.
“First and foremost, this is a time of public health and safety being the main priority,” says Mallos. “But we also have to realize that the broader waste issue that is being highlighted by this pandemic really matters.”
“We know many places around the world don’t have this capacity to manage this waste,” he adds. “This is harmful to human health, and to the oceans and the environment.”
Given the timespan of this crisis, very little can be done to reduce the amount of plastic involved to prevent Coronavirus. However, campaigners are hopeful that changes will come.
“We are seeing some people experimenting with disinfecting PPE now, but that’s largely out of necessity — we just don’t have enough,” says Hocevar.
“Longer term, we’ll want to be a little bit more intentional about that, and develop reusable, disinfectable PPE.”
The plastics problem caused by the production of PPE is visible in the streets and gutters of almost every major city.
As authorities scramble to fight the Coronavirus crisis, many restrictions on single-use plastics have been paused or rolled back.
The charge on plastic bags has been suspended in the UK. The US states, such as Maine, banned such items on hold, while retailers, including Starbucks, have banned reusable products to protect against the spread of Covid-19.
This pattern is a concern for several organizations, including the World Bank. “These measures have all been announced as temporary, but how long will they stick, fed by anxiety around health concerns?” Grzegorz Peszko, a lead economist at the organization, asked in a blog post last month.
“As Covid-19 hits, it seems to be shifting the tide toward single-use plastics,” Peszko concluded.
The plastics industry is seizing its moment to capitalize on public health concerns by promoting the use of its products, and this is a feeling among conservationists.
“Parts of the plastic industry have worked really hard to exploit fears around COVID,” Hocevar says.
“It’s disappointing that lobbying groups are taking advantage of this climate of fear and uncertainty,” Mallos adds. “Using this opportunity to sell disposable plastics as the safe option is one of our challenges.”
In March, the Plastics Industry Association wrote to the US Department of Health, asking it to “make a public statement on the health and safety benefits seen in single-use plastics.”
The pandemic is “forcing many Americans, businesses, and government officials to realize that single-use plastics are often the safest choice,” the group said.
The studies cited by the body, criticized by the conservation groups, and have talked up others that suggest that Coronavirus lives for longer on plastic than on most other surfaces. CNN has contacted the Plastics Industry Association for comment.
Hocevar is confident that rollbacks will be temporary and mention some progress that has been made in his organization’s cause even during the pandemic, such as new restrictions against single-use plastic in Orange County unveiled in April.
However, Mallos fears the onslaught of coronavirus developments every day means significant setbacks are going under the radar.
“We are oversaturated daily with news around the pandemic … there is so much information streaming to us daily that many of these types of messages can be missed,” he says. “It may not seem like a significant action at the moment, but it will manifest in very dangerous ways down the road.”