The Plastic Pandemic

Single-use plastic has been a lifesaving resource during the pandemic. It helped to maintain social distancing by letting us deliver our foods in single-use plastic bags and single-use plastic bottles. This replaced reusable coffee cups and shopping bags in the fear of virus transmission. It has been a lifesaver to the frontline health care workers. Yet we still see the viral images of heaped plastic waste in the shores and streets. And we need quick solutions for waste disposal from all over the world before it becomes a severe environmental disaster.

Last Sunday, according to the conservationists at least 20 turtles were dead and dozens more were rescued after being entangled in plastic waste washed ashore on one of the world’s longest beaches in Bangladesh.

“Hundreds of locals rushed to the beach since early morning to rescue the wounded turtles, we have buried the dead ones and are trying to release the rescued turtles back to sea.” Forestry spokesman Sohail Hossain.

The images released with the story were heartbreaking and the locals have said that waves of waste, mostly plastic bottles, fishing nets and buoys floated ashore late Saturday. They have also spotted turtle carcasses among the dunes on early Sunday.

The wildlife both in the marine environment and in rural areas including thousands of whales, birds, seals and turtles are killed every year from plastic bags as they often mistake plastic bags for food such as jellyfish. And the impact of plastic litter on wildlife has been tremendously increasing since the COVID-19 pandemic.

The proliferation of plastic waste and its pollution of the world’s waterways was already a major concern before the COVID-19 pandemic, with policymakers, companies, and international organizations like the United Nations urged to take action. Some national and local governments implemented taxes and bans on single-use plastics and some major companies invested in more environmentally friendly packaging.

Now, however, the COVID-19 crisis threatens to stall and even reverse progress. Though we do not know the exact amount of plastic waste generated all over the world, preliminary data collected so far are staggering.

In China, the Ministry of Ecology and Environment estimates that hospitals in Wuhan produced more than 240 tons of waste daily at the peak of the outbreak, compared with 40 tons during normal times.

Data are hard to come by but, Antonis Mavropoulos of the International Solid Waste Association (ISWA) say that in America since the pandemic consumption of single-use plastic may have grown by 250-300%. And much of that increase is down to demand for products designed to keep COVID-19 at bay, including masks, visors and gloves. According to a forecast from Grand View Research, the global disposable-mask market will grow from an estimated $800m in 2019 to $166bn in 2020.

In the United Kingdom, so-called fly-tipping illegal waste disposal has risen by 300% during the COVID-19 outbreak. In some countries, companies that are advancing innovative methods of recycling and reusing waste plastics are reporting reduced amounts of plastic coming through waste streams, predicting that a growing volume of plastic is ending up in landfills or leaking into the environment.

However, on June 22, 115 health experts worldwide released a statement arguing that reusables are safe even under pandemic conditions and some governments are taking notice.

In late June, California reinstated its statewide ban on single-use plastic bags and a requirement for plastic bags to contain 40% recycled materials and Massachusetts quickly followed suit, lifting a temporary ban on reusable bags.

As the global economy restarts, aid agencies, development banks, and NGOs should invest in building effective waste-management systems. Beyond helping to keep plastic waste out of the oceans, such systems can provide decent jobs and improve livelihoods, resulting in stronger and more sustainable economies in the long term.

COVID-19 is often described as a sudden attack. Some say it was a known risk that policymakers chose to ignore. The last thing the world needs is to allow other well-known threats to remain unaddressed. And, when it comes to plastic waste, the warning bells have been ringing loud and clear for years.

By Jumana Jabeer

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