The Covid-19 pandemic has had an impact on the way we live in myriad ways. The lockdown, shelter in place and a cut down on travel has led to a dramatic fall in pollution levels, but this is just temporary, say experts. What is more worrying is the extensive use of single-use plastic in the form of Personal Protective Equipment, gloves and masks.
Millions of tons of pandemic related waste plastic is now clogging our sea beds. Already, some 8 million ton of plastic enters our oceans every year this is in addition to the 160 million tons already swirling around as waste in the water bodies.
Data about plastic use during pandemic times is hard to come by. Consumption of single-use plastic may have grown by 250-300% in America since the coronavirus took hold, says Antonis Mavropoulos of the International Solid Waste Association (ISWA), which represents recycling bodies in 102 countries.
Grand View Research, a research consultancy company, says the global disposable-mask market will grow from an estimated $800m in 2019 to $166bn in 2020.
Environmental bodies all over the world are concerned that maritime ecosystems will be upset for a long time to come if measures to curb this waste entering the oceans are not pushed forth.
Another concern is that with the world occupied with the pandemic, all green issues have taken a backseat.
Countries affected by the virus pandemic have halted all recycling efforts The United States, Spain and Italy all have stopped recycling of plastic and other materials. Municipal bodies report a shortage of personnel and contamination concerns as the reason.
Stoppage of recycling of cardboard and cloth means a paucity in paper made of these waste material like stationery, tissue paper and toilet rolls.
Also, a majority of the world consumers have gone online for purchases. All the consumer items delivered to the doorstep come packaged in cardboard and plastic. Estimates put Amazon visitors for online purchases at 2,2 billion in the last three months, and in China, 25 percent of all physical goods were bought online in the first quarter of the year. Restaurant home deliveries, which have risen 50 per cent during the pandemic, also come in plastic containers. What is more worrying is these packaging plastics are made of plastic of bad quality, which is very difficult to reuse or recycle.
The pandemic also caused a crash in oil prices. A major ingredient in plastic manufacturing is petroleum, and the price crash now makes manufacturing plastic cheaper, hence, there is no incentive to recycle further, according to David Xie of the University of Warwick.
Halting of green issues will mean a greater upsurge in pollution once all manufacturing and constructive activities are resumed with a vengeance once things settle down.
Green experts say that this is a good opportunity to rethink our sustainability strategies. All activities now need to be looked through the lens of sustainability and resilience. The pandemic has taught us to value what we have, respect nature and not be over greedy.
Another concern is that years spent in turning public habits away from single-use plastic now will be gone to waste. At the moment, one cannot begrudge the use it is being put to. It is acting as an effective shield against the virus for frontline workers. According to Dan Parsons, director of the Energy and Environment Institute at the University of Hull, preliminary findings suggest that the public has reverted to its earlier habit of plastic waste. The pandemic has already encouraged the rolling back of anti-plastic legislation, such as taxes on single-use grocery bags in some American states, or a ban on plastic straws in Britain.
Less plastic use is not going to make the world greener or better, and at the moment it is serving a purpose, some experts opine. At the moment the world is facing a conundrum of which is the better evil; single-use, reuse, or no use, maybe in the future.