Imagine going to a beach with some friends on a hot summer day. You must have pictured some crystal blue waves reflecting the cloudless sky and beating the pearl-white sand. But what if you see waves of masks, gloves, and plastic bottles getting washed up to the shoreline? Will you still be able to enjoy a nice sun-bath with your friends? Certainly not.
Unfortunately, this was the exact scene that Gary Stokes, co-founder of Oceans Asia, witnessed when he stepped on the beach of Hong Kong’s Soko Islands. Sooner or later, beaches around the world would possibly look the same---all due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
During this period, personal protection is extremely important for both the medical staff and the general public. This leads to extremely high demands for personal protective equipment such as masks, gloves, and protective suites---all of which are made of non-biodegradable plastics like polypropylene (PP), polyethylene (PE), and polyvinyl chloride (PVC). Just medical facilities alone generate tons of medical wastes every day.
In addition to hygiene purposes, the use of plastic products--especially single-use plastics--- has increased dramatically during the new quarantine lifestyle. In order to reduce risks of cross-contamination, many grocery stores and retailers like Starbucks prohibited customers to bring their own recyclable bags or cups, even though a recently published study from The New England Journal of Medicine proved that the virus is indeed “more stable on plastic and stainless steel than on copper and cardboard”.
Moreover, many governments, including California, recently lifted the ban of plastic production, further intensifying the situation with the overwhelming generation of plastic wastes. Many members of the plastic industry even saw this as an opportunity to push for more production of plastic products, gaining profitable benefits that they couldn’t during recent years when these laws were under effects. There’s also a significant decrease in recycling municipal wastes due to concerns for the workers’ personal health and safety. As a result, the already low rate of recycling is now even more incompatible with the growing rate of plastic production. All of the factors above fueled new waves of plastic pollution that could severely undermine previous efforts.
One of the most observable impacts of excessive plastic production is ocean pollution. In countries that don’t have efficient municipal waste facilities, improperly discarded masks, gloves, and other PPEs often end up in city sewages and eventually the ocean: casting greater challenge to the immense plastic pollution that’s already threatening lives in the marine environment. More importantly, severe ocean pollution can negatively impact our own health. Plastic wastes contain materials that take hundreds of years to decompose. Even they do fully decompose, the remaining toxic particles can be consumed by marine animals such as fish and shrimps, which will then move up the food chain and eventually end up in our bodies. Hence, growing plastic pollution in the ocean not only affects marine wildlife but also us as consumers.
As Xie, a researcher from the International Institute for Nanocomposites Manufacturing at the University of Warwick said: “While this COVID-19 pandemic is just temporary, plastic pollution could be long-lasting.” Plastic pollution can raise greater concerns regarding its long-term impact on both the environment and our health. Although the primary focus right now is battling the virus and ensuring everyone’s safety during times of crisis, more efficient and responsible approaches should be taken into consideration in order to obtain a less plastic and more sustainable future. For instance, plastic products can be substituted with biodegradable materials such as polylactide (PLA) that is made from sugar and fermented starch, polyhydroxyalkanoate(PHA) that is produced by microorganisms from organic materials, and biomass sources such as cellulose, chitin, and alginate.
The future is full of possibilities, and sustainability is not a goal that is out of reach.
What we need is unity within the international community where people around the world work together to make the waves clearer, the sands whiter, and the skies bluer. There are no boundaries of race, gender, or ethnicities in front of nature because we are all humans as one species. Every bit of change we bring to nature, nature will bring it back to us. Therefore, living responsibly and sustainably is a lifestyle that all of us should embrace for a greener future.
Sources of Information:
LA Times-Article: “The COVID-19 pandemic is unleashing a tidal wave of plastic waste” by Shashank Bengali
CNN-Article: “Coronavirus is causing a flurry of plastic waste. Campaigners fear it may be permanent” by Rob Picheta
Forbes-Article: "The Amount Of Plastic Waste Is Surging Because Of The Coronavirus Pandemic” by Laura Tenenbaum
The Economist: “Covid-19 has led to a pandemic of plastic pollution”