Plastic Pandemic

The emergence of the novel covid virus has proven to be dangerous to the lives of the people and also has had adverse effects on the already strained ecosystem. The pandemic has reemphasized the use of plastic in our daily lives in the form of protective gears like masks, gloves, face shields, or then using one-time-use takeaway containers. While many researchers believe that using plastic could be a successful way to prevent the spread of the disease and save lives, the increase in its use is a massive step backward in protecting our planet. Millions of single-use plastics (SUP) is causing littering at the seabed at an alarming rate and the already overburdened landmines are getting filled with discarded plastic at an increasing speed. This article attempts to understand the reasons which make plastic desirable, it aims to assess the detrimental effects caused due to increased plastic waste during covid-19 on the environment and analyze methods that will prevent us from causing further damages.

Why do we hate plastic but still cannot seem to stop using it?

Simple, because it is cheap, convenient and everything that we need in today’s fast paced time of ‘one-day deliveries’ and ‘order-ins’. Oil and natural gas are the top ingredients in making plastic and have had their prices hitting rock bottom due to the economic crash caused by covid. This all-time low cost is causing people to choose plastic over alternative materials like seaweed and cellulose, which are kinder to the environment but on the steeper side in comparison. When manufacturing industries have to choose between recycling plastic and producing new products, the latter is a more economic option. This encourages industries to manufacture more virgin plastic and reduces the rate of recycling the preexisting plastic waste. Also, properties of plastic like excellent strength to weight ratio, durability, and versatility make it irreplaceable in the healthcare sector. Moreover, being lightweight, flexible, and the long-lasting nature of plastic makes it a perfect choice for food packaging in the recent ‘takeout’ trend.

Overuse of plastics - in healthcare, restaurants and packaging industries

It is misleading to believe that the waste being generated during the pandemic is only via hospitals and healthcare facilities. Along with personal protective equipment (PPE), the use of SUP in the form of cutlery, packaging materials and take-away containers in restaurants was also at an all time high since the beginning of 2020. Pre-covid most countries had imposed a ban on using plastic bags and had encouraged the citizens to use reusable shopping bags, and cutlery instead of one-time use plastic ones. This ban had to be rolled back upon as a measure to reduce the contamination rate. With the lockdown being imposed, people were compelled to shop online for most of their basic necessities, the plastic used in the packaging of these products is another factor contributing to plastic pollution. Reports suggest the plastic waste generated by online retailers like Amazon can wrap the earth approximately 500 times. The current global estimate of daily generated single-use PPE is close to 3.6 billion tons that is being discarded due to the Covid19 pandemic. A report reads that approximately 200 kg’s of facemasks were found in over 200
dustbins in Wuhan, China as opposed to none in the years before the pandemic. In India, it has been reported that 22,000 kg of waste is created for every 1000 tests done using the RT-PCR technique. Given these alarming figures, there is a rising danger of waste generation by using SUP and PPE which are directly correlated to the emergence of this new novel virus.

Faulty waste management techniques

Poor attitude and irresponsible behavior of the consumer towards disposal of garbage adds stress on the already strained waste management infrastructure in terms of collection and operation, thus, making plastic the notorious polluter. People have been throwing their used masks out in the open while the protocol urges them to store a used mask for 72 hours, to reduce the virulence load within the mask before discarding it. While excessive wastage created by plastic is a glaring issue destroying the already imbalanced ecosystem of many countries, waste management within these nations is another. The waste pickers who usually pick up and segregate the trash at a local level were being compelled to continue picking up the toxic waste thrown irresponsibly by the common public. The increase in workload and being exposed to contaminated waste discouraged them from picking up stray waste efficiently, thus causing an increase in the stray waste that eventually leaks pollutants into the soil and water . Scientists believe that the ill effects
caused by the poor disposal of plastic waste which enters our air, food and water poses a bigger crisis than the disease of covid itself in the long run. Poor methods used in discarding the non-biodegradable PPE kits made from plastic poses not only as an environmental hazard but also risks human health as the seafood consumed by them most often contains minute-sized plastics.

Where is this plastic then going?

A study done by the Columbia Climate School says that out of the 33 million ton of plastic
discarded by the Americans, only 9.5% was recycled while 15% was combusted to produce
electricity or heat. The remaining 75% of the plastic garbage either fills the landfill where it takes up to 500 years to decompose or then lands up in oceans. The lightweight property of plastic which makes it so sought after to use in packaging and other medical uses also happens to be the reason the oceans of the world are facing problems. It takes one strong gush of wind or storm to push this plastic debris into the ocean bed, landing upon the already existing plastic garbage and frequently around the necks of sea animals or then into their bellies. Plastic which has a lifespan of over 450 years never really degrades but disintegrates into tinier filaments called micro-plastics which finds itself at the bottom of the oceans. Large quantities of gloves, masks and hand sanitizer bottles have been found at the bed of the Mediterranean sea further challenging the already threatened oceanic world. Waste created due to plastic causes immense harm to the aquatic environment, choking and poisoning marine life and getting into the food cycle. Aquatic organisms like fishes, sea turtles, whales, beach birds and other marine mammals might be at the risk of entanglement and ingestion of face masks or gloves. At Least 9 million tons of plastic enters the ocean annually, and this rate is most likely to grow as more oil companies are willing to invest in the production of plastic

What are the ways damage control is being done you ask?

The French government has requested the citizens to replace the use of hand gloves with washing hands frequently, in non-medical facilities. Environmentalists in Hong Kong are urging people to opt-out of using takeout disposables, picking up food from the restaurants instead of ordering-in to reduce the use of packaging material and are also encouraging restaurants to give rebates to customers who bring in their own containers. In bigger cities like New York and Chicago, the less commonly recyclable plastic materials like low-density polyethylene (LDPE) are being recycled using high-end technology like near-infrared spectroscopy, which identifies the chemical composition of plastic, thereby improving the efficiency and speed of recycling. A report submitted by the Earth Engineering Center determined that the amount of energy contained in the landfills of the USA when converted into liquid fuel, could produce 5.7 billion gallons of gasoline which can
power almost 9 million cars per year. In India, many NGOs have partnered with the local ‘waste picker associations’ and have asked them to educate the households they work at about disposing of wastes like gloves and masks in a separate bag so that they can be sent directly to the medical plant for disposal. Re-emphasizing on the subtle but effective tactics of using cloth bags, bottles and reusable masks. Some short-term solutions include teaching the public easier ways to recycle and using the power of social media to promote sustainable habits. Influencing the mind of even one person is a success, as he will further urge those around him to rethink their choices. To facilitate this shift of mindset in the community creates a sense of belonging and peer pressure amongst people in making the right choices. Government-issued policy guidelines to adopt safer practices and sustainable technical solutions along with creating awareness amongst the citizens is of utmost importance in today’s time so that we can continue befriending plastic instead of
turning it into the topmost reason causing pollution globally.

Plastic has emerged as a life savior during the pandemic with its versatile qualities that helped in making PPEs, single-use medical equipment along packaging solutions- in protecting the lives of healthcare workers and the common citizens. However, an increase in plastic usage and the subsequent wastage is causing issues like excessive littering, and the poor waste management techniques employed in discarding garbage classifies plastic as an absolute enemy of the planet. The ability to use technological prowesses to convert this waste into resources has multiple benefits that not only help clean the environment but also lessens our dependence on imported oil, reduces greenhouse emissions, and decreases the use of non-renewable resources. In order to continue using plastic in a way to ensure the safety of humans along with the deteriorating ecology of the planet, effective strategies of reduction, recycling, and recovery have to be implemented. Strict policies, adopting innovative techniques in creating eco-friendly and biodegradable materials with higher recyclability and at the same time creating awareness amongst the users to be conscious consumers are the ways forward in reversing the menace caused.

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