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Has COVID-19 Worsened Plastic Pollution?

Face masks, hand gloves and PPE kits have two things in common: they are single-use and made from plastic. For the sustainable advocate, those very characteristics are perhaps the most alarming as they are known disruptors of the environment. However, for hygiene and safety reasons alone, it is absolutely essential that the protective gear we wear during these cautious times be synthetic and disposable. 

Key Takeaways: Single-use on the Rise, Again

According to the World Economic Forum, the demand for single-use products such as gloves, masks, wipes, cleaning agents and hand sanitisers is at an all time high that are sadly also being tossed out in unprecedented volumes. It took us years to learn that plastic usage is bad, but the COVID-19 pandemic has stopped us in our progressive tracks. Around 13 million tonnes of plastic ends up in the ocean annually — that’s the equivalent of a garbage truck every minute, but if current trends of plastic demand continue, its manufacturing will amount up to 15% of greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, according to a study

The Environment and Social Development Organization in Bangladesh estimated that the country produced nearly 16,000 tons of toxic plastic waste during the first month of lockdown. Despite being one of the wealthiest cities in the world, even Hong Kong is known to shove 70% of its waste into landfills. When the commercially-vibrant metropolis had recorded its first coronavirus case, Gary Stokes, an environmental activist collected more than 70 discarded masks from a beach slightly longer than a football field. And in the months since, Stokes has discovered many more washed up onto other islands far from central Hong Kong. One study estimates that the world’s healthcare facilities go through 129 billion face masks and 65 billion gloves each month, a large amount of which are designed to be used only once. And as the pandemic persists, the need for PPE hasn’t come to a halt — in fact, countries have gone to great lengths to make face masks accessible to average citizens, by lowering prices.

The Plastic Pandemic

Around the world, people are finding animals affected by masks, gloves, and other PPE. “The material that is helping us is harming others,” claimed one scientist. In a first-recorded observation of its kind, beach clean-up volunteers found wildlife harmed or killed by gloves, masks, and other littered PPE used during the pandemic. 

They uncovered reports of robins, seagulls, penguins, and even hedgehogs trapped in face mask ear loops, which can impair their movement and make them vulnerable. Birds, such as the common coot, are using masks, gloves, and packaging from pocket tissues to build their nests, items that their young could ingest or even get entangled in.

Rich or poor, COVID-19 pandemic has affected every country, city and individual just the same — bringing out a rather reckless yet carelessly cautious attitude towards plastic disposal. In such times, proactively seeking sustainable solutions will not only help the planet but also the sanitation workers who are at a higher risk of being exposed to the virus due to heightened mask disposal. 

Take a look at our piece on how to opt for a reusable cotton mask that is a safer yet greener alternative.


Published by: Vibhuti Vazirani/ 2020-06-18

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