It is estimated that every minute of every day a truck load of plastic enters our oceans and the ongoing pandemic has made this so much worse. Before the pandemic it was estimated that approximately 300 million tonnes of plastic was produced worldwide each year with more than 8 million tonnes ending up in our oceans annually. It is now estimated that up to 13 million tonnes of plastic enters the oceans each year, much of this consisting of discarded PPE. Plastic has a lifespan of approximately 450 years, even then it never fully degrades but shrinks into smaller microplastics. It is estimated one million seabirds and 100000 marine mammals die from plastic pollution each year, 100% of baby turtles and 90% of seabirds have plastic in their stomachs and one in three fish caught for human consumption contain plastic.
Surgical masks are made from polypropylene which acts as a protective layer against droplets. If everyone in the UK wore one every day for a year this would equate to an extra 128,000 tons of plastic waste. In addition there are the disposable gloves, aprons and visors, all single use, plus the covid testing kits themselves. These are packed individually in plastic wrappers and contain plastic bags for the swabs to be returned in. It is impossible to imagine how much extra plastic this has caused with thousands of people being tested every day and, of course, the swabs themselves are essentially plastic sticks.
Divers are finding gloves, masks and hand sanitiser bottles at the bottom of the Mediterranean, and the banks of the Thames are littered with disposable gloves and masks. On a beach in the uninhabited Soko Islands there were 70 surgical masks on a 100m stretch; this is a beach in the middle of nowhere. Porpoises and dolphins could mistake them for food and creatures such as birds and turtles become entangled in them.
Another detrimental effect on the environment has been the increase of take away food packaging and drinks containers, many made of single use plastic. People are having to socialise outdoors, on beaches and in parks, and are discarding take away cartons and cups without a thought for the impact it will have on nature. Furthermore the huge increase in click and collect food shopping, plus e-commerce and the online delivery of fast food, has created even more plastic and polystyrene waste from the wrapping of parcels and packages to extra carrier bags.
Lastly the pandemic caused oil prices to fall, and petroleum is extensively used in the production of plastic. Suddenly plastic became cheaper to produce and many companies stopped bothering to use recyclable alternatives.
What can be done?
We need to look to the future. At the very least PPE needs to be discarded safely and responsibly; the WWF states that if “1% of the world’s face masks are disposed of incorrectly 10 million masks will end up polluting the world’s fragile ecosystems, this equates to 40000 kgs of plastic”. The elastic fastenings on masks should always be broken before they are discarded.
Tesco is prototyping reusable glass and metal packaging for its online delivery service. Groceries will be delivered in these containers which will then be collected, professionally cleaned and re-used. Hopefully other supermarkets will follow this lead.
However the effects of the pandemic will be with us for a long time, not just the human toll but the toll on the environment. As much as individuals may act responsibly when it comes to disposing of PPE there is still the huge increase in the use of other single use plastics to consider. This is something we can all help to diminish by using environmentally friendly alternatives.
Internet Retailing reports that one third of shoppers are more conscious now on the impact of online shopping on the environment, and nearly three quarters expect retailers to use recyclable packaging. They want to have the environmental effect of the goods and packaging made clear when they make their purchase. If we re-think the way we shop and the environmental impact of what we buy we can all help to turn the tide of the plastic pandemic.