Plastic Pollution In The Post-Pandemic World: Where Are We Headed To?
Versatile, affordable and ever-present, plastics have been essential to keeping hospitals running and protecting our frontline workers during the COVID-19 pandemic. As demand skyrockets for masks, gloves, gowns and disposable bags, one thing is clear: plastics are indispensable, especially during a pandemic. But that’s only part of the bigger story.
The devastating impact of COVID-19 and the extraordinary measures taken around the world have led to some tough questions for those working to combat plastic pollution. How do we support those in our community hit hardest by the outbreak? Can the recycling industry survive COVID-19? Can we still achieve a circular economy for plastics? And, how can we keep our work going in a world in which “normal” still seems so far away?
Amid restaurants and other food businesses, there has been a surge in home delivery or takeaway options. Many won’t allow customers to bring their own containers, defaulting to disposables which generate plastic waste. This means many consumers can’t reduce their plastic waste, even if they wanted to. Demand for products such as disposable wipes, cleaning agents, hand sanitiser, disposable gloves and masks is at a record high. Unfortunately, they’re also being thrown out in unprecedented volumes.
Amid understandable concern over health and hygiene during the pandemic, the problem of single-use plastics has taken a back seat. However, while the current increase in these disposable plastics is understandable, we also need to think about our planet’s long-term health. We can expect the environmental cause will return to the foreground when the COVID-19 crisis has passed. In the meantime, reuse what you have, and try to store rather than throw out items for donation or recycling.
Talk to takeaway food outlets about options for using your own containers, and refuse disposable cutlery or napkins with deliveries. Use the time to upskill your coffee-making at home rather than buying it in a takeaway cup. And look for grocery suppliers offering more sustainable delivery packaging, such as cardboard boxes or biodegradable bags.
As aware consumers, we need to advocate for businesses to uphold commitments to reduce plastic waste, and encourage them not to lose sight of longer-term sustainability targets. Embracing and helping popularize the concept of the circular economy for plastics is also imperative as it will help keep plastic waste out of our waterways, our oceans and our environment through the principle of Reduce, Reuse and Recycle. Above all, we need to be vigilant about ways environmental protections such as plastic bag bans might be undermined during the pandemic, and voice your concerns to politicians.
We stand at the junction of two diverging paths. One is a stop-gap solution that puts us solidly on track toward a not-so-distant future in which there is more plastic in the ocean than fish. The other is a sustainable model of living and working that will benefit us long into the future – one that will create a healthier, more equitable and more livable future for all.