As the world braces itself for a second wave of Covid-19, there is a global battle to fight not only the virus but a resurgence of disposable plastics. HOLLY PITTAWAY explores whether our fight to contain the virus comes at the hidden expense of accelerating a key factor of Climate Change, in this Green Party Women exclusive.
Friday 26 JUN 2020 17:00
The dangers of plastic have long-been reported on. From its extraction, to its production, to its disposal, the material has detrimental effects on both the planet and, thus, our own health – yet it is everywhere. Worldwide, a million plastic bottles are bought every minute, and 2 million plastic bags are used in the same time. It covers our beaches, comprising around 73% of all beach litter, and destroys our wildlife, killing more than 1.1 million seabirds and animals every year. We even eat it, as it’s estimated that the average person consumes 70,000 microplastics annually. A report by the Centre for International Environmental Law warned that current levels of plastic production ‘threaten the ability of the global community to keep the global temperature rise below 1.5 degrees Celsius’, meaning that by 2050, greenhouse gas emissions from plastic could total over 56 gigatons, 10-13% of the remaining carbon budget.
Some promising changes, however, were being made in the UK. In 2016, a 5p charge on plastic carrier bags was introduced at large stores throughout the country; this levy proved effective, as in the same year it was reported that nine in ten shoppers in England were using their own carrier bags, a 20% rise compared to before the charge was added. In 2018, after it was reported that plastic producers could market single-use items as reusable in order to dodge the EU ban, a 272,000 strong petition succeeded in ensuring corporations would pay for their pollution. In 2019, a ban on plastic straws, stirrers, and cotton buds was announced, expected to come into force the following year as a combatant against the 4.7 million straws, 316 million stirrers, and 1.8 million cotton buds wasted in the UK every year. The last few years have also seen the widespread popularity of reusable coffee cups and mugs, with a number of coffee shops introducing a discount for those who bring their own cup.
Enter March 2020 and the coronavirus pandemic. Previous steps forward have been reversed and halted, as the world worried that reusable items would prompt a more far-reaching spread of the virus. As of March 21st 2020, carrier bag charges were dropped for online grocery deliveries, a change that promised to speed up deliveries and, thus, reduce risk of contamination. Similarly, the proposed ban of the aforementioned single-use plastic items was delayed as of April 2020, the month it was originally due to come into force, until October 2020, in order to reduce the pressure on the hospitality industry, which is currently suffering due to the coronavirus. Coffee outlets, such as Starbucks, Pret A Manger, Greggs, and Costa, have also temporarily banned the use of reusable coffee cups over fears that improperly cleaned cups could spread the virus more rapidly.
Environmentally conscious consumers have also struggled to keep up their eco-friendly habits amidst the pandemic, making the popular Kermit the Frog phrase, ‘it’s not easy being green’, ring true in a more serious sense. ‘Quarantine has made me less able to be eco-friendly in a number of ways,’ Katie Clarke, owner of sustainable accessory brand, ‘Luna Lane Accessories’, told me. ‘Moving home for lockdown has meant I don’t have access to the same reusable packaging such as food wraps, as my parents mainly use disposable packaging.’ Another eco-friendly consumer, Harriet Bywater, agreed; ‘I usually buy my food at bulk stores and at the market, but due to COVID-19, the family I am living with have been buying food for me. As grateful as I am, there has been far too much plastic for my liking in the shopping.’ Another shopper lamented at not being able to utilise reusable swaps; ‘I can’t bring reusable bags into grocery stores. Also, I can’t use my reusable coffee mug in drive through anymore, and now they are using single-use menus for outside dining where I’m from. It’s very disheartening,’ said Heidi Taylor. Fortunately, it seems that some consumers have responded to this plastic ramp up by being more selective of the products they choose to buy, minimising plastic packaging where they can. Some have even started their own campaigns, like PlasticFreePints, which encourages pub-goers to bring reusable cups when they get takeaway drinks, and this petition demanding supermarkets switch to paper bags for online deliveries.
As well as these backtracks, a new, more dangerous form of plastic is threatening our planet – personal protective equipment (or PPE). While there are guidelines in place for how to reuse PPE, it is often simpler just to dispose of it, in order to prevent any contamination from occurring. As it’s now being recommended that members of the public wear face coverings in order to prevent a second wave of the pandemic, issues of reusability versus disposability are being pushed to the forefront.
Mountains of PPE waste have already begun to wash up on our shores. Opération Mer Propre, a French non-profit that works to clean up beaches along the Côte d’Azur, began discovering “Covid waste” - gloves, masks, and hand sanitiser bottles - last month. Joffrey Peltier, a representative of the organisation, warned, “It’s the promise of pollution to come if nothing is done.” Another representative, Laurent Lombard, worried in a status on social media - “Soon we’ll run the risk of having more masks than jellyfish in the Mediterranean.” As a result, there are concerns that this new plastic pandemic could offset years of climate change work. Gary Stokes, co-founder of Oceans Asia, an advocacy group that investigates wildlife crimes and plastic pollution in Asia, also spoke of finding dozens of disposable masks at a Hong Kong beach. “I understand people are afraid because they don’t know what’s going on with this virus, but it’s just a major setback,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “It’s almost just an excuse for going back and using plastic on everything.”
But plastic isn’t a cure-all when it comes to coronavirus. Research has suggested that the virus is capable of surviving on plastic surfaces for up to three days, while on cardboard its lifetime was just 24 hours, and on copper this was even more reduced to just four hours. The reusable face mask business has also taken off in recent weeks, with a number of larger companies and independent sellers creating them out of linen and cotton – linen in particular has natural antibacterial properties, and its surface is not an easy environment for germs to breed in, which makes it a highly coveted material. The desirability of plastic over other materials in combating coronavirus, however, is likely due to its simple sanitisation, as plastic surfaces can more easily be wiped down with disinfectant than cardboard or paper.
Despite the surge in single-use plastics, though, there seems to be a silver lining. At its lockdown peak, the UK saw a 30 per cent rise in household recycling due to people having easier recycling access at home than when out and about. Air pollution has also plummeted across the country as a result of travel restrictions, with some cities reporting a 60 per cent drop in nitrogen dioxide levels. Many campaigners see this as a sign of hope for the future, suggesting that these positive changes can be sustained if we don’t rush back to normality.
But what will life look like after coronavirus, and how ‘green’ will our recovery be? Only time will tell, but one thing is certain – we can’t continue down our current path.
Please sign and share Holly’s petition to reduce plastic waste:
A list of places to buy reusable face masks:
Saturday 27 JUN 2020, 16:04, Author Holly Pittaway was incorrectly identified as Holly Martin in the article and graphic.