Till earlier this year, we were making good progress in the fight against climate change, as countries across the world were banning single-use plastic items like bags, cups, straws, takeaway containers, etc. But then the coronavirus crisis came knocking on our doors and we got introduced to personal protective equipment (PPE) kits, which include goggles, face shields, masks, gloves, coveralls, or gowns, and head and shoe covers—all made of plastic but highly beneficial in reducing the risk of contracting infection.
The bottomline, however, remains that this plastic-based equipment could end up in the natural environment, adding to the near 12 billion pieces of single-use plastic items that are anticipated to seep into the landfill and the natural environment by 2050. Undoubtedly, the virus has challenged efforts to reduce this toxic waste. As an emergency health order, in fact, many stores across the world have started using single-use paper or plastic shopping bags to prevent new infections.
Even people who swore off plastic have had to resort to using it to protect themselves. US-based environmentalist and social media star Lauren Singer prided herself on never using plastic, but the virus changed all that. “I sacrificed my values and bought items in plastic. Lots of it, and plastic that I know isn’t recyclable in NYC (New York City) or maybe even anywhere… why would I go against something that I have actively prioritised and promoted?” she posted on Instagram, where she has 3.83 lakh followers. Singer went on to admit that as the seriousness of Covid-19 dawned on her, she stocked up on home items for the long term, many of them packaged in plastic.
Like Singer, many sustainability-conscious people may now find their cupboards stocked with plastic bottles of hand sanitisers, disposable wipes and takeaway containers—restaurants now offer home delivery or takeaway options, defaulting to disposables, which generate plastic waste. Hygiene concerns and a longer shelf life are some advantages for single-use plastic suppliers. Additionally, in view of the virus, countries like the UK had for some time suspended the plastic bag charge for online deliveries. Fast food and retail chains, including Starbucks, also banned the use of reusable cups and food containers. Maine in the US has postponed a plastic bag ban, while New Hampshire and Cambridge, Massachusetts, have banned reusable bags.
In such a scenario, it’s clear that the plastic pollution problem isn’t going away anytime soon. If the PPE is critical to fight the pandemic, it is also important to dispose of it properly. The discarded masks and wipes could be contaminated and pose a threat to anyone who picks them up. Environmentalists fear negative consequences for wildlife and the fight against plastic pollution as the pandemic poses difficult short-term choices between health and the environment. Plus, the contaminated plastic, cloth and latex could end up in waterways, blocking the oceans.
While it’s tough to say exactly how much plastic is in the ocean, scientists say about eight million metric tonnes of plastic enters the ocean every year. That’s the weight of nearly 90 aircraft carriers, as per the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, US Department of Commerce.
A report published on the World Economic Forum website by senior writer Kate Whiting estimates that a plastic grocery bag adrift in the ocean could take up to 20 years to decompose, whereas a plastic bottle could stick around for up to 450 years.
There is some hope though, as sustainability is the focus for many businesses. Today, it’s quite easy to find eco-conscious accommodation. Hong Kong Ocean Park Marriott Hotel, for one, is taking steps to curb its carbon footprint by implementing a ban on single-use plastic, choosing organic toiletries and transporting guests in EVs. Its restaurants are also eschewing plastic and emphasising on plant-based dishes.
Closer home, Delhi-based non-profit initiative ApnaMask.org inspired Rajan Anandan of Sequoia India, Vijay Shekhar Sharma of Paytm, Vishal Gondal of GoQii and brands like Urban Company, MakeMyTrip, Dunzo, HealthifyMe and Zomato to make and wear homemade masks. Then there is online shopping brand India Circus by Krsnaa Mehta, which has unveiled sustainable face masks, while Nivedita Saboo Couture has produced washable masks in a reusable bag with easy identification within family members.
Our overdependence on plastic has been one of the major reasons for the degradation of the environment. But one must remember that recycling works better than bans. That’s why Indian beverage brand Responsible Whatr has launched natural mineral water in recyclable aluminium cans and Finnish natural mineral water brand Veen offers it in glass bottles made of 100% recyclable extra-flint crystal-clear glass. International home fashion brand The Rug Republic also uses recycled bicycle tubes, PET yarns extracted from recycled water bottles and recycled silk yarns to create vibrant carpets.
UK-based A Plastic Planet has developed plastic-free visors made from FSC paper board and PEFC cellulose from wood pulp. The visor is both recyclable and home compostable. The pandemic has given us time to ponder what comes next. We must realise that protecting health, as well as the planet is the long-term solution and must go hand-in-hand.