COVID-19 is affecting all activities and people across the world. Despite limiting our activities and putting many businesses in jeopardy, we’ve heard good news from the environment during this pandemic: cleaner air, clean waters, the return of dolphins and fishes in the Venice canals, and so on. But then, seeing the uncertain future of this pandemic, many countries are now trying to adopt ‘new normal’ protocols which enable us to continue our activity (hopefully) safely.
With the new normal, the demand for health protection equipment is rising even higher. Disposable face masks, latex hand gloves, plastic packaging, plastic face shield… Those are some of the gears we are familiar with. Health protocols require us to quickly dispose of such equipment, considering that they are ‘contaminated’ as we stroll outside our homes and bump into strangers. Companies are required to distribute their products within the safety protocol, which mostly includes an abundance of extra plastic packaging.
Sadly, so much of the waste ends up littering the environment, especially the ocean, without proper waste management.
While the importance of being safe during the pandemic is out of the question, is it also right to ignore the effects on our environment? Is health protection worth the cost of polluting our environment?
What happens after the waste bin?
Versatile, impermeable, and affordable, plastic has been an essential material for numerous medical equipment to protect our hospital frontline workers during the pandemic. Their health protocols, which includes disposable protective equipment, have become the primary example for the rest of us to follow. However, this also translates to increased demand for products such as disposable latex gloves, masks, and wipes.
Amid the concern over our safety, the effects of the increasing use of plastic have been put aside. Coronavirus waste has contributed to the pollution of our ocean as single-use personal protective equipment (PPE). With a lifespan of nearly 1,000 years and 450 years, plastic and disposable face mask waste is an ecological time bomb given their lasting damage for polluting our planet.
The promotion of wearing a mask has led to a significant increase in the production of disposable masks. UNCTAD estimated a global sales of $166 billion this year, compared to the $800 million in 2019. On top of that, this pandemic is a great opportunity for members of the plastic industry to take advantage of, where there is a heightened demand for single-use plastic bags, plastic packaging, bottled water, etc.
In other words, we should make our health a priority. But if we don’t take actions upon the mountain and sea of waste from single-use materials, we will only be investing in a damaged environment, which will surely corrupt our future health.
How to stay safe and prevent unnecessary waste?
In UNCTAD’s July 2020 analysis on plastics, sustainability and development, it is concluded that global trade policies could play an important role in reducing coronavirus waste. UNCTAD encourages governments to promote non-toxic, biodegradable or easily recyclable alternatives for plastics, such as natural fibres, rice husk, and natural rubber.
While government policies could give a significant impact, we too, as individuals, could (and will) give an impact. Keeping our hygiene does not necessarily mean ‘disposable’ or ‘single-use’. Yes, disposable face masks and single-use plastic bags are more practical and ‘safe’. But if we just put a little more effort into washing our reusable face masks and cloth shopping bags, we are compromising our health with that of our environment.
Reuse what you have, take your own containers for food takeaways, refuse disposable plastic cutlery, look for grocery delivery with cardboard boxes or biodegradable bags.
Remember, there is no single solution when it comes to waste and pollution. We can invest in both our current and future health or just our current health. It’s our choice.