The effect of COVID-19 on single-use plastics
Over the past few months, due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, there has been an exponential increase in the usage of single-use plastics be it in daily-use items or in medical supplies. Countries that had plans for curbing the usage of single-use plastics are now focusing on handling the immediate health concern of the virus. However, all of this has given a backseat to the campaign against single-use plastics. Given the record low oil prices, manufacturing petroleum-based plastics has become cheaper, and the usage has been increasing.
Ban on single-use plastics in different countries prior to COVID-19 and post COVID-19
When 2020 had started, concern for environmental degradation was at the peak, and several acts and policies were being formulated and adopted to reduce the usage of single-use plastics. More than 100 countries had legislative regulations in place with respect to the usage of single-use plastic products. Plastic-free alternatives were being increasingly encouraged and adopted by companies across multiple sectors. However, with COVID-19, a resurgence in plastic use has again put the planet into peril. Several countries have dropped the charges for single-use plastic bags used by the supermarkets while delivering groceries. Multiple nations have also delayed previously planned bans on plastic straws, stirrers, and cotton buds.
Companies taking a step back from plastic-free alternatives
With the increased preference of customers towards plastic products for safe choices during the pandemic, and the multiple myths surrounding reusable, plastic-free products with respect to safety, several companies have taken a step back from cutting down on plastic. Under the misconception of hygiene and safety protocols, several companies have utilised this opportunity to push forward single-use plastic products in the market again. And with the sale of packaged goods, fruits and vegetables, and home delivery services, single-use plastics are being manufactured and sold by companies without much environmental concern. Panic-buying and piling up of stocks by consumers has also aggravated the situation. Another factor is the general belief among the masses that packaged items are safer. This concern for safety has made people tilt more towards plastic. All this has further led to companies changing their policies and guidelines towards plastic usage. Cafes have banned the use of reusable cups, even though experts argue that using non-plastic reusable cups is more hygienic since they can be washed, whereas the virus stays on plastic surfaces for 72 hours.
While experts believe that there is no evidence to prove that single-use plastics are safer than cloth or paper, several producers have been feeding fear into the public to increase sales. In fact, some single-use plastic increases the risk of the virus. For example, if you use reusable tumblers, then they can be reused after a thorough wash in soap and hot water. However, if you use plastic cups and dump them after a single-use, the sanitation workers handling the trash, mostly from marginalised backgrounds, are at a higher and direct risk from the virus.
Increase in single-use plastic items due to the pandemic
Prior to the pandemic, awareness about the harmful effects of single-use plastics was on the rise. However, the pandemic has deteriorated the situation again. With myths and concerns surrounding hygiene, the focus on environmental concerns has become negligible. Walk for Plastics, an environmental conservation organisation, reports that post-COVID-19, littering has shown a devastating increase and one of three plastic items being found littered is a plastic mask. The usage and negligent disposal of single-use plastic items like medical supplies, tableware, and bags are on the rise. Grocery stores have been increasingly using plastic bags and households are generating up to 50% more waste by volume. People have started using plastic in every daily activity, while the demand for PPE suits, masks, and gloves, all made of plastic, has been increasing by leaps and bounds.
The adverse impacts of using single-use plastic during and after COVID: people versus the planet
Inger Andersen, UN Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director, UN Environment Programme, says that “COVID-19 has not pressed pause on the environmental challenges that we continue to face, and that includes the problem of single-use plastic pollution. In the last 50 years, plastic production has increased 20-fold and a mere 9% of plastic waste was recycled. According to UNEP’s Global Environment Outlook, about 8 million tonnes of plastic ends up in the oceans each year.” Therefore, the ongoing fight against the COVID-19 virus does not negate or reduce the constant fight against the environmental degradation caused by single-use plastics. Landfills are increasing and harming both flora and fauna, plastic-burning is making the air toxic, marine life is getting destroyed because of plastic being dumped onto ocean beds, and when humans consume this seafood, plastic reaches them too.
The way forward: behavioural change, and lessons from experience
While we are living through challenging times, the challenge of the pandemic does not unburden us of the challenge of climate change. While battling this pandemic, we must also sincerely focus on creating a greener future with eco-friendly alternatives. Alternatives which would help us transition towards a circular economy as a long-term goal. This transitioning would need us to devise new plans and practice the lessons learned from the past. While we have established the need for behavioural change and learning from experience to battle both these problems surrounding our planet, the question which arises next is – what is the alternative of single-use plastic? Are biodegradable plastics better for the environment? The answer is, yes. And hence, they are the much-needed alternative for petroleum-based conventional plastic.
Incorporating these products into our daily lives requires efforts from multiple organisations as well as NGOs and individuals. Information, awareness, and availability of alternatives are paramount. While compostable carry bags manufacturers can play a crucial here by providing environment-friendly alternatives, 100% biodegradable plant-based packaging can also be used to safeguard the planet against further depletion. Further, ecofriendly compostable bag manufacturers and biodegradable plastic carry bag manufacturers can enlighten the masses to use their products for a more sustainable future. Various programs and policies need to be launched to spread awareness, so that, every citizen is informed about the importance of biodegradable choices and where to get them from. And every time a concerned citizen worries – “where can I source biodegradable medical supplies from?”, they have the answer already. Also, biodegradable products for restaurants as well as biodegradable products for cafes, and biodegradable food bags in bulk, need to be made available at easily accessible places. The product range also needs to include cheap compostable bags, biobased bag manufacturers, and compostable bags for food waste.
In the past, we have seen the detrimental effects of single-use plastics on humans, plants, sea life, as well as the environment. While a lot of rules and regulations had been put into place over the past few decades to combat the damaging effects of single-use plastics, the current global pandemic has shown us the flaws in the previous systems. It has jolted us into reality and proved how the current scenario does not utilise proper alternatives already in place, and neither does it practice the mechanism to dispose of problematic materials.
Therefore, for consumers, this pandemic is a reality check to bring about a behavioural change with respect to littering. For companies, this pandemic brings a responsibility to help ensure a greener future for the planet, by redesigning services and products for hygiene. Companies need to look towards providing solutions that are both safe from the virus as well as healthy for the environment.