Plastic Pollution in the Age of Covid-19

  “Everyone thinks of changing the world but no one thinks of changing himself.” – Leo Tolstoy

“Be the change you wish to see in the world.” –Mahatma Gandhi

by Anshika Singh : Today, the world has changed itself in a way which none of us ever imagined.  With the global COVID-19 crisis impacting us at  individual, community, population, ecosystem and biosphere levels, this pandemic has been compared to a world war-like situation. One of the major impacts of this pandemic has been a surge in the demand of single-use plastics and other plastic products for medical use (such as gloves, masks, life support equipment, respirators, and general plastic supplies including syringes) and domestic uses (such as online delivery packaging and shipping). In developing countries like India, plastic waste management faces serious challenges due to limited infrastructure and regulation capacities to sustainably manage the increasing plastic waste. The accumulation of plastic waste is detrimental to both our lives and our environment.  Plastic accumulation in urban areas (e.g. Mumbai), which dumps 80-110 metric tons of plastic every day has increased the incidence of floods, thereby constituting breeding grounds for vectors of zoonotic diseases (e.g., mosquito Aedes spp. as a vector of dengue and Zika; source: Report from National Green Tribunal (NGT), 2018). Even SARS-CoV can survive on plastic surfaces for 3 days, making plastic a vector for disease spread. Due to various chemical, physical and biological processes happening during their course of travel from source to sink,  bigger plastics are further broken down into tiny pieces (less than 5 mm) known as microplastics. Microplastics can carry larger pathogen loads and provide better accessibility for the spread of these diseases due to larger surface areas and bioaccessibility (the smallest particles can be inhaled and swallowed). However, there is a need to study the role of microplastics in the transmission of COVID-19, particularly microplastics (or microfibers), which are also present in the air. In the present scenario, human health is the topmost priority in every country, which has led to some negligence of environmental health.  Plastic reduction policies and plastic waste management strategies have been been either reversed or temporarily postponed to divert efforts to helping stop the spread of this pandemic. COVID-19 preventive measures have resulted in a shift of consumers’ behaviour towards the use of single-use plastics, packaging and recycling. There have been concerns related to cross-contamination owing to the use of reusable containers and bags which led to withdrawals or postponements of single-use plastics (SUP) bans and fees. The idea of removing the ban and fees on SUP was well supported by the plastic industry lobbyists who treated this pandemic as the opportunity to gain ground in the policy debate. To cope with the rising numbers of COVID-19 positive cases, many state governments (such as Delhi, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala) in India have relaxed their restrictions to ban plastic with fewer than 50-microns. SUP accounts for 46% of all plastic waste globally (Source: UNEP, 2020 Report). Although single-use plastic has been used as part of relief efforts in all major cities, towns and villages to distribute daily essentials (such as food items) during the pandemic, it is contributing to a bigger problem of plastic pollution due to improper waste management. The indiscriminate use of plastics has also reversed the temporary “healing” process of the planet that happened during the three-months of lockdown and will be making the situation worse in the coming days. With the increase in the COVID-19 positive cases throughout the country, the use of PPE has been made mandatory, not only for frontline healthcare workers, but also for the general public, which has accelerated plastic pollution. While most of the developed countries are capable of managing such waste, developing countries are being forced to apply inappropriate management strategies such as direct landfills or open burnings. About 60% of the total plastic waste used to be recycled in India before COVID-19. However, during COVID 19, uncontrolled landfilling and local burning strategies on plastic waste have increased substantially in some municipalities as an attempt to avoid virus contagion.

The COVID-19 crisis poses a major challenge as to how to deal with the current plastic waste that has accumulated and the rapid surge in the plastic waste that is expected shortly. Following are the roadmaps for tackling such problem:

  • Designing and promoting the use of bio-based plastics such as novel microbial strains with enhanced hydrolytic capacities
  • Avoiding the use of  (instead, use washable cloth bags)
  • Avoiding the use of disposable PPE by the general public (except the medical frontline staffs). However, reusable PPE solutions should be used during pandemics as long as they do not compromise public health, requiring pacifying the public regarding their safety.
  • Raising public awareness on the adverse effects of plastic pollution through social media and citizen-science program.
  • Optimising plastic waste management by pre-sorting and disinfection of medical waste.

Our dependence on plastic as one of our basic needs has been put to the test
with the current COVID-19 pandemic, thereby demanding 1) the need for adapting to an eco-friendly lifestyle, 2) redesigning of  plastics products from bio-wastes,  and 3) revising the policies to ensure sustainable use of plastics while maximising the benefits (such as economy, safety and hygiene), and minimising the drawback (such as plastic waste mismanagement).

References:

  1. Silva, A. L. P., Prata, J. C., Walker, T. R., Campos, D., Duarte, A. C., Soares, A. M., … & Rocha-Santos, T. (2020). Rethinking and optimising plastic waste management under COVID-19 pandemic: Policy solutions based on redesign and reduction of single-use plastics and personal protective equipment. Science of the Total Environment, 140565.
  2. You, S., Sonne, C., & Ok, Y. S. (2020). COVID-19: Resource recovery from plastic waste against plastic pollution. Cogent Environmental Science6(1), 1801220.
  3. Klemeš, J. J., Van Fan, Y., Tan, R. R., & Jiang, P. (2020). Minimising the present and future plastic waste, energy and environmental footprints related to COVID-19. Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews127, 109883.

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