Plastic Woes and the Pandemic

Divya Mehra

The world only recently started taking baby steps to deal with the troublesome nature of plastic and was coming to an understanding of the scale of damage it has done and can do to our environment, that the year 2020 brought with itself a pandemic. Besides causing unprecedented global health and economic crisis, the coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated the already existing plastic pollution crisis. Little to our realization, the pandemic has led to a surge in the utilisation of plastic in the form of disposable face masks, personal protection equipment (PPE), hand sanitizers, disinfectant liquids, disinfectant wipes, etc. that are used as protective measures to deal with the virus.

What is Plastic?  

In 1907 the invention by a Belgian-born American chemist Leo Hendrik Baekeland brought about a revolution in materials by introducing truly synthetic plastic resins into the world of commerce. Plastic is a term commonly used to describe a wide range of synthetic or semi-synthetic organic compounds that are malleable and are usually moulded and used in an array of applications. Plastic is strong, durable, lightweight, chemically resistant, convenient, cheap, and gets easily moulded into different objects because of which its utilization is extensive and is still growing. It is corrosion-resistant and non-biodegradable which makes it highly durable. The extremely versatile nature of plastic has made it suitable for both consumer and industrial applications. It is used for building and construction, packaging, mobility and transport, electronics, sports and leisure, healthcare, agriculture equipment, clothing, household products, personal care products, and much more.

Why is Plastic so Problematic? ­­

Although plastic possesses so many consumer-friendly qualities, it is still a bane for the environment. Plastic is essentially a non-biodegradable substance which when thrown into the trash stays as it is for hundreds of years. The chemical properties of plastic make it resilient from the natural process of degradation. Even if some plastics get degraded, they further breakdown into smaller particles. These smaller particles often break into micro-plastics which are less than 5mm in length, which further adds to the environmental concerns.

How Plastic Ends Up in Our Environment?

If we look around carefully, we see plastic everywhere. Since it takes hundreds of years to breakdown, it has accumulated in our environment. There is a high possibility that the first toothbrush or any other plastic product that we might have used as a kid is somewhere out there in the environment. Researchers estimate that over 300 million tons of plastic are produced every year around the world out of which 50% is for single-use purposes and that are often used for just a few moments. It is also estimated that only 9% of all plastic waste ever produced has been recycled. About 12% has been burned, while the remaining 79% has accumulated in landfills, dumps, or the natural environment. More than 8 million tons of plastic is dumped into oceans every year and most of it comes from land-based activities.

Plastic waste in a landfill. Image by Justin Ritchie

Plastic enters the oceans through rivers, windblown waste, industrial waste, littering, etc. The waste is often directly dumped into our drains and rivers which then reaches the oceans due to poor waste management strategies.  The irresponsible littering at beaches and river shores also contributes to ocean plastic. Sometimes, during the transport of trash from households to landfills, the lightweight plastic gets blown away by the wind and makes its way into the environment. Many times, personal care products like toothpaste, shower gels, face scrubs, wet wipes, sanitary napkins, etc. that we use in our daily lives and flush down the toilets and drains contain very tiny pieces of plastic or micro-plastic which are often untraceable during the waste treatment processes, eventually ending up in our rivers and then in our oceans.

How Plastic Affects Our Environment?

The non-biodegradable property which makes plastic a consumer-friendly product is the same property which makes it hazardous for the environment. Once plastic enters the environment, instead of degrading, it breaks into smaller and smaller particles which allows it to strengthen its roots in the environment. The plastic from our houses enters rivers mainly through sewage and direct dumping of waste, then these rivers carry plastic to our farms, contaminating the soil by releasing toxic chemical additives such as phthalates and Bisphenol (BPA) which leach out during the breaking down stage hence contaminating our plant-based foods. These smaller plastic particles are often mistaken as food by the farm animals/birds and are consumed by them.

Similarly, plastic in the water bodies is consumed by the aquatic animals, eventually finding its way into the food web and somehow ending up on our dinner tables. Millions of animals and birds die because of the ingestion of plastic or entanglement in plastic waste. In 2019, a pregnant sperm whale washed up dead at the coast of  Sardinia, Italy with 20 kilograms of plastic in her stomach. In November 2018, a sperm whale died in Indonesia after eating 155 cups, four plastic bottles, 25 single-use bags, and two flip-flops. Researchers estimate that 56% of all sea bird species are affected by plastic in the water bodies. Such incidences are increasing year by year affecting wildlife and precious ecosystems.

A sea turtle caught in a ghost net. Image by Doug Helton

How the Pandemic is Adding to the Plastic Problem?

The coronavirus pandemic is now also being termed as the plastic pandemic. While there is no doubt that single-use plastic has helped in fighting the battle against the epidemic, especially for the frontline health care workers and essential service providers, sadly it has added to the plastic nuisance. Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) like disposable gowns are made from polyester or polyethylene. Surgical masks and N95 respirators are generally made from non-woven polypropylene fibre. Face shields and visors use polycarbonate or polyvinyl chloride. Coveralls are made with high-density polyethylene (HDPE). Most of these are single-use plastic.

Preliminary data released by the Ministry of Ecology and Environment, China, estimates that hospitals in Wuhan produced more than 240 tons of waste daily at the height of the outbreak, compared with 40 tons during normal times. Packaged take-out meals and home-delivered groceries contributed an additional 1,400 tons of plastic waste in Singapore during the 8-week lockdown.  In India as well, the governments have shown leniency against the utilisation of single-use plastic during the pandemic. The plastic carry bags which were briefly banned in some states before the pandemic are back in the market. According to a recent news article, the data received from State Pollution Control Boards since June 2020 shows that all States and Union Territories in India together have generated 18,006 tonnes of COVID-19-related biomedical waste. Of this, around 5,500 tonnes of COVID-19 waste was generated across the country in the month of September alone, the maximum for a month, so far.

During these difficult times, and on humanitarian grounds, it is unrealistic to control the use of plastic for medical purposes but there is always scope to reduce the plastic footprint from other aspects of our lives. Simple practices like taking our carry bags to markets or using refillable water bottles or saying no to plastic straws or wearing reusable face masks in our daily lives can help us contribute to tackling the problem of plastic pollution and reducing our plastic footprint.

Featured Image by adege (pixabay.com)

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