COVID-19 and increased use of Single-use plastic products

COVID-19 and increased use of Single-use plastic products
Photo by Mufid Majnun / Unsplash

What are Single-use plastic products?

Single-use plastic products (SUPPs) are the ones which can be used only once for a short period of time, thrown away thereafter. The environmental damage from SUPPs is huge, causing massive destruction to the environment and marine life ecosystems. Globally, every year millions tonnes (5 -13 million tonnes) of plastic ends up in oceans either by human or by natural activities. Annual damage caused by SUPPs to marine ecosystems is 13 million US$. By 2030 there would be a two fold increase in the number of plastic wastes.

Plastic dependency

It is documented that due to the global pandemic, COVID-19, use of plastic have increased unexpectedly. Excessive and enormous amount of plastic waste (including medical waste) was generated and discarded through landfills or incinerated during the pandemic which will eventually bring negative impact on the environment.

Considering the waste generated during the pandemic, infectious in nature, being cautiously treated over recycling methods will also impact environmental health in the long run. During this time, some places have seen a downfall in the recycling programs. Many states around the world have also extended the lift on the ban on plastic use during the pandemic.

It is ironic that on the one hand plastic was considered of utmost importance during the pandemic for creating protective instruments for front line workers and general masses from getting infected from SARS Cov-2, while on the other hand, there is a growing concern over unprecedented increase in single-use plastic products. Since many of the SUPPs replacements are costlier, specially during COVID times has also made plastic more cheap.

Rise in pollution caused by the disposal of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), gloves, masks, sanitizer bottles, body bags, etc., is now at a staggering rate. Single-use face masks are mainly made up of polypropylene, polyurethane/ polyacrylonitrile. Researchers have speculated that if every person in the United Kingdom uses one single use mask every single day, single use masks will contribute to a total waste of 1,24,00 tons, half of it cannot be recycled. Thus, their government is advising the general public to consider using reusable masks.

According to the World Health Organization estimates, global monthly consumption of face masks and gloves is 125 and 65 billion. One Research suggested that globally, about 3.4 billion single-use facemasks/face shields were discarded daily. It is very likely that waste generated from COVID-19 pandemic will become a common debris found in the environment for a long, very long period of time. It is a great threat for low and middle income countries.

It is of no doubt that the pandemic has badly affected the travel and tourism industry. Travel Restrictions imposed by the authorities has led many businesses to shut down. There is expected to be a global loss of 935 billion US$ from tourism by the end of this year. However, with ease in restrictions now, very soon the industry will get back to normal. High usage of SUPPs in Travel and Tourism business is quite apparent. The UNEP in its recent report has managed to map the pollution and environment leakage caused by single-use plastic products in the travel and tourism sector. People in this business should support sustainable changes through innovation and science & technology rather than reliance on SUPPs. The have expressed concerns over some of the frequently polluting SUPPs like water bottles, disposable toiletries, plastic bags and bin liners in the travel and tourism sector. Apart from these pollutants, there are some more like cigarette butts, wet wipes, sanitary products, fishing nets, agriculture plastics, etc. that create pollution creating more pressure on the waste management system.

It is also observed that the judicial use of the plastic management system is still challenging and not fully operational in some places in tourism sector. The Global Tourism Plastic Initiative, 2020 also stands against plastic pollution and how to address the challenges post pandemic in the tourism sector. The burnt of COVID-19 pandemic is thus very visible in our environment. The recommendations made to create a Circular Economy for Plastic were as follows:

*To Remove unnecessary plastic packaging and items to reduce cross contamination touch points;

*To develop robust cleaning and sanitization procedures that encourage the adoption of reuse models;

*To evaluate the use of unavoidable plastic packaging and items, enquire about their recyclability and reassess needs on a regular basis;

*Engage suppliers, waste management providers and local governments to improve the effectiveness of actions, coordination and resilience;

*Ensure open and transparent communication with staff and clients

COVID-19 and increased use of Single- use plastic products
By Neeti Goutam, Strategic lead, Communications