The Direct Relationship Between Increased Plastic Pollution and COVID-19

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The current and ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has done its fair share of devastation across the planet, infecting millions of people and leaving a tidal wave of death and damage.

Sadly, this deadly illness isn’t showing any signs of going away, at least not until there is a treatment or vaccine, and until masks and other prevention measures are implemented effectively. 

But the immediate risks, the lasting impact on our health, and the collection of bodies associated with this virus are not the only indications of the damage the coronavirus has done. 

Just look at the massive quantity of plastic materials being discarded as a result of the pandemic. From plastic gloves to face shields, surgical equipment, personal protective equipment (PPE), and even body bags, COVID-19 has led to an increase in the production of plastic supplies and an overwhelming increase in discarded plastic trash. And it’s causing significant and potentially devastating challenges to the mission of reducing plastic pollution and protecting our planet. And environmentalists are understandably very worried.

In the days before COVID-19, plastic straws were a complete faux pas, and reusable water bottles were all the rage. People environmental activists and regular consumers alike were foregoing their plastic waste in favor or more planet-friendly, plastic-free, or reusable products. 

People were making significant efforts to minimize their plastic waste from eliminating cling wrap to using paper water boxes, metal straws, bamboo plates, and reusable containers, especially after studies show the damage that waste was doing to our planet. 

Today, in the face of an unrelenting virus that is sweeping the country and the world, plastic usage is often essential, and plastic waste has increased significantly. And while it might seem insignificant considering the global health crisis we are facing, increasing plastic pollution is a big deal with lasting implications.

The COVID-19 Pandemic’s Impact on Plastic Usage, From Plastic Bags to PPE

Think about the massive increase in restaurant takeout orders as dining establishments had to close their dine-in services due to COVID-19. 

From single-use packaging to plastic bags and disposable cutlery, restaurants and diners rely heavily on those plastic containers to feed their families and keep local businesses afloat. Some cities have even rolled back bans on plastic bags to prevent the spread of disease from reusable products. Retailers are also going back to disposable plastic shopping bags and banning reusable bags from curbing the spread of coronavirus germs from person to person. 

The surge in plastic usage among restaurants is no joke. 

While Green Restaurant Association CEO Michael Oshman suggests it’s too premature to predict precisely how much-increased plastic waste has been or will be generated due to the pandemic, the World Wildlife Fund projects a 40%  increase in plastic pollution in the next decade as a result of increased reliance on single-use plastic projects. 

If you ask Sandra Noonan, chief sustainability officer of Just Salad, “the environmental fallout is definitely real.” The popular chain recently shifted away from reusable bowls once the pandemic hit, in favor of disposable plastic containers, reports CNBC. 

To put the numbers in perspective, before the COVID-19 pandemic Just Salad was saving more than 75,000 pounds of plastic a year through the production of their reusable bowls. When that production halted in light of the coronavirus, they returned to disposable packaging, negatively impacting their sustainability efforts due to increased plastic pollution. 

And then there’s the increased plastic usage due to the skyrocketing need for personal protective equipment in the medical field and beyond. As PPE became essential across the world, so did the usage of plastic and, therefore, plastic waste.

Back in April, as the pandemic was ramping up and countries worldwide were in a panic over safety supplies, there was almost an arms race to get as much PPE as possible. Protective masks, respirators, and plastic gloves, governments, hospitals, medical professionals, and civilians were all scrambling to get their hands on these critical plastic supplies. 

While the use of such PPE was evident from a public health perspective, it has also led to complications and setbacks in terms of pollution. 

Just look at the streets, sidewalks, sewers, and garbage dumps. “Right outside my house there are discarded gloves and masks all over the neighborhood,” John Hocevar, oceans campaign director at Greenpeace USA, tells CNN. That pollution you see on street corners will most likely eventually end up in sewers and then the ocean, adding to the already growing global plastic pollution problem. 

And PPE is uniquely dangerous, experts argue. “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.” 

Managing the Use (and Fear) of Reusable Goods in a Post-COVID World

It seems that necessity and fear have come into play where plastic usage during COVID-19 is concerned. People need these plastic goods for their own safety and protection. Still, they are also hesitant to use any reusable products because of the fear of germ transmission and the perceived risk of spreading an undeniably terrifying virus. 

“The plastic industry seized on the pandemic as an opportunity to try to convince people that single-use plastic is necessary to keep us safe and that reusables are dirty and dangerous,” explains John Hocevar, ocean campaign director at Greenpeace. “The fact that neither of these things is supported by the best available science was irrelevant.” 

In fact, back in March CNN reported that the Plastics Industry Association wrote to the U.S. Department of Health, requesting a “public statement on the health and safety benefits seen in single-use plastics,” claiming that the pandemic is “forcing many Americans, businesses and government officials to realize that single-use plastics are often the safest choice.” This claim, and the subsequent rollback of policies limiting single-use plastics, has many conservationists concerned.

Once the pandemic finally subsides, there will most certainly be a significant challenge in terms of getting back to where we were as a nation environmentally. 

In recent years, significant progress has been made to educate people on the damage that plastic pollution can cause to our planet, more specifically the ocean and marine life. But recently, primarily due to the pandemic and increased plastic usage and PPE disposal, the increased plastic waste is predicted to add to the mass amounts of plastics in our oceans and the collections of microplastics in our seas, air, and even food. 

By focusing on the benefits of plastic materials to help battle the current public health crisis, we’ve essentially contributed to another health hazard with lasting effects. 

“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.” 

Mallos agrees that the top priority is currently to protect public health and mitigate the spread of the pandemic. “But we also have to realize that the broader waste issue that is being highlighted by this pandemic really matters,” he argues. 

After all, there will come a day when the coronavirus will be a threat of the past a tragic ordeal and global health crisis that our children will learn about in history books and that (hopefully) our world learns a great deal from as we better prepare to combat future pandemics.

But if we don’t also manage environmental issues, such as plastic pollution, today, then we could be headed down a dangerous path with lasting impacts on our planet.