With the fight against Coronavirus, the consumption of plastic is increasing. But while the pandemic will be temporary, the resulting pollution will be far more lasting.
Since 2018, when China started the ban on importing plastic waste, the most developed countries were forced to reduce their production of this type of waste. They had goals to get close to becoming plastic-free countries, therefore eliminating disposable plastic, such as shopping bags, straws and disposable cutlery. At the same time, discussions around ways of reducing the production of plastic waste from hospitals and laboratories were undertaken. An exceptional event such as COVID-19, however, forced us to ask ourselves the long-standing question: will the future still be, or else, increasingly made of plastic?
Shall we protect our health or the environment?
In the battle against the global pandemic, we are seeing an increasing demand for personal protective equipment, many of which are made of plastic and rubber. The main example is disposable gloves, that are essential for workers in the health sector.
If latex gloves are biodegradable, because they are produced with material extracted from rubber trees, the same does not apply to gloves produced with synthetic polymers. If nurses and doctors wore only latex gloves, the pandemic would theoretically not cause any increase in environmental pollution. Although, not for all devices it is so easy. The main material for the production of surgical masks is polypropylene, which effectively protects against microbes and droplets. For the same reason, this material is widely used for protective medical clothing.
In addition, there are many other plastic objects used in medicine to create and maintain sterile environments: from pill containers, to disposable syringes, from catheters to blood bags. All produced using synthetic polymers such as PVC and PP. Both are not biodegradable. This is why we should not be surprised if the fight against COVID will generate tons of plastic medical waste.
Unfortunately, the increase in plastic waste is not solely connected to hospitals. The social distancing measures, imposed to contain the epidemic, have made masks and gloves become commonly used also among the population. Also, with the lockdown, take-away and home delivery have become the norm. In both cases, food is almost always supplied in disposable polypropylene or polystyrene containers.
Countries such as England, California and Southern Australia recently suspended the ban on the use of disposable plastic to reduce the risk of virus spread, although according to some scientific studies, COVID-19 seems to survive longer on plastic compared to other materials.
Plastic or sustainability?
So far, we have achieved a plastic recycling rate of less than 10%. And the pandemic raised doubts about the safety of recycling cycle workers. The lockdown hindered the correct waste recycling processes. The collapse in oil prices could mean lower prices for virgin plastic and therefore make recycling even less attractive. It would therefore seem that the increase in plastic used and the decrease in recycling capacity will lead to an increase in pollution.
More than ever in this world pandemic the question arises: can we protect our health by minimizing the negative impact of plastic on the environment?
Without a doubt, reducing or, even better, avoiding the use of non-essential plastic materials remains an excellent choice but using disposable items is still the best option, especially when it comes to hygiene. Disposable does not mean, however, pollutant. The compostable alternatives, especially in the restaurant sector, are now many: from biomass to biodegradable plastics, the list of available sustainable alternative is long. Obviously, there is a need of suitable facilities for the production of compost from these materials, adequate labeling of packaging and products and a serious information campaign for consumers.
And undoubtedly, this will not be enough. Fighting plastic pollution is more complex than defeating Coronavirus, unfortunately. It requires synergic actions that involve all the actors involved: governments, NGOs, industrial and commercial giants and, last but not least, consumers. This is certainly not simple, but not impossible. What we should remember is that the future doesn't have to be made of plastic and we shouldn't be forced to choose between health and pollution.