There is no denying that single-use plastic has been a lifesaver in the fight against COVID-19, especially for frontline health workers. It has also facilitated adherence to social distancing rules, by enabling home delivery of basic goods, especially food. It might also have helped to curb transmission, by replacing reusable coffee cups and shopping bags in many cities over fears that the virus could stick to them.
Yet widely circulated images of plastic sacks of medical waste piling up outside hospitals, and used personal protective equipment floating in coastal waters and washing up on the world’s beaches, illustrate yet again the dark side of single-use plastics. If the world is not careful, short-term thinking during the pandemic could lead to an even larger environmental and public health calamity.
Of course, the proliferation of plastic waste — and its pollution of the world’s waterways — was already a major concern for a growing share of the world population before the COVID-19 pandemic, with policymakers, companies and international organizations such as the UN urged to take action. Some national and local governments implemented taxes and bans on single-use plastics, although not all have followed through on their pledges. Major companies invested in more environmentally friendly packaging.
However, the COVID-19 crisis now threatens to stall and even reverse that progress.
Although it would take time to learn precisely how much additional plastic waste has been generated during the crisis, preliminary data are staggering.
The Chinese Ministry of Ecology and Environment estimates that hospitals in Wuhan produced more than 218 tonnes of waste daily at the height of the outbreak, compared with 36 tonnes during normal times.
Based on these data, the consulting firm Frost & Sullivan predicts that the US could generate an entire year’s worth of medical waste in just two months because of COVID-19.
A similar uptick in waste can be seen among ordinary citizens. In China, daily production of masks soared to 116 million in February, 12 times higher than the previous month. Hundreds of tonnes of discarded masks were being collected daily from public bins alone during the outbreak’s peak; there is no telling how many more were being discarded in household waste systems.
The Thailand Environment Institute said that plastic waste has increased from 1,361 tonnes to 5,715 tonnes per day, owing to soaring home deliveries of food.
Compounding the problem, many waste management services have not been operating at full capacity, owing to social distancing rules and stay-at-home orders. In the US, curbside recycling pickup has been suspended in many places, including parts of Miami-Dade and Los Angeles counties.
In the UK, illegal waste disposal has risen by 300 percent during the pandemic.
In some countries, companies that are advancing innovative methods of recycling and reusing waste plastics are reporting reduced amounts of plastic coming through waste streams, suggesting that a growing volume of plastic is ending up in landfills or leaking into the environment.
During the COVID-19 crisis, it is essential to protect the vulnerable, ensure that health workers have the tools and support they need to do their jobs safely, prevent healthcare systems from becoming overwhelmed and avoid additional waves of infection.
However, in meeting these imperatives, the other — perhaps greater — long-term challenges facing humanity cannot be lost sight of, including the environmental and public health risks generated by excessive plastic waste.
For starters, companies all along the plastic value chain, from manufacturers to retailers, should show their commitment to public health and welfare by expanding and accelerating their efforts to end plastic waste. Those that step up to the challenge of environmental stewardship by contributing to the creation of a circular economy would reap a rich bounty of public trust and profitability well into the future.
Governments, for their part, must recognize the crucial role of waste management services and their workers in the transition to a sustainable future, and allocate COVID-19 spending accordingly.
Such efforts would advance multiple Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), including SDG 11, which calls for cities to ensure effective waste management; SDG 12, which calls for waste generation to be reduced through prevention, reduction, recycling and reuse; and SDG 14, which calls for marine pollution of all kinds to be reduced.
However, governments cannot always do it alone. Many developing countries struggle with nonexistent or broken waste management infrastructure. With the COVID-19 crisis highlighting the need for cooperative action, now is the moment to change that.
As the global economy restarts, aid agencies, development banks and non-governmental organizations should invest in building effective waste management systems. Beyond helping to keep plastic waste out of the oceans, such systems could provide decent jobs and improved livelihoods, resulting in stronger and more sustainable economies in the long term.
COVID-19 is often described as a sudden shock, although some say it was a known risk that policymakers chose to ignore. The last thing the world needs is to allow other well-known threats to remain unaddressed, and when it comes to plastic waste, the warning bells have been ringing loud and clear for years.
Jacob Duer is president and chief executive of the Alliance to End Plastic Waste.
Copyright: Project Syndicate
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