The Personal Protective Pollution Problem

The Personal Protective Pollution Problem

It’s piling up all over our planet…

March 1, 2021 | Published by O2

These days, most of us have made an effort to reduce how much we leave the house. Those aimless trips to the mall and hours spent thrifting have become few and far between. There’s one place, however, that we all still go — the grocery store.

The last time you went to buy groceries (masked-up, of course) you probably saw a disposable mask or two lying on the ground as you grabbed your grocery cart. You might have even seen a stray glove floating in the wind while you waited in line. Once you finished your shopping and began checking out, the grocery clerk probably loaded your items into a few plastic bags. Maybe one of those bags even contained a box of disposable masks and a tub of the ever-elusive disinfectant wipes.

A trip to the grocery store has in many ways become a microcosm of the pandemic pollution problem.

Plastic pollution was bad enough already

Before the pandemic began, plastic pollution was already a major problem. We produce 275 million tons of plastic waste annually, with 91% of all plastics we produce ending up in landfills or the ocean. Our oceans are literally drowning in it. You may have heard the shocking statistic that by 2050 there could be more tons of plastic in our oceans than fish. Over 8 million tons end up in them each year. That’s one garbage truck full of plastic waste being dumped into our oceans. Per minute.

These plastics are eventually broken down by sunlight, wind, and waves into microplastics, which have disastrous effects on marine life. Whales, turtles, fish, seabirds, and other animals are consuming more and more of these tiny plastic particles, and are dying by the hundreds of thousands each year. According to National Geographic, “microplastics have been detected in marine organisms from plankton to whales, in commercial seafood, and even in drinking water.”

Our oceans have become a dumping ground for plastic and other debris. In fact, there’s even one that’s officially named as such. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch — also known as the Pacific trash vortex — is formed of two distinct groups of debris bound together by the same ocean current, or gyre. This swirl of plastic and other garbage, which has a surface area of 1.6 million square kilometres, features literal trash islands (some up to 50 feet in length)and is largely made up of dense walls of underwater waste. Since 80% of all marine debris is made up of plastic, it’s clear that we have a serious problem on our hands.

Efforts were being made to change things

In recent years, governments around the world have slowly begun to reach a consensus on reducing the impact of single use plastics. Many countries and regions have announced bans or restrictions on the sale of single use plastics like straws, cups, and bags. Canada, Peru, the EU, California, China, and the UK are just a few of the places that have announced or enacted such bans. But it’s Africa that leads the world on reducing plastic waste, with 34 countries adopting taxes or bans on plastic bags.

In 2019, the U.N.’s member states signed a pledge to reduce the amount of plastic that enters our oceans. While it’s not enough, awareness around the dangers of plastic pollution has increased globally as efforts have been made to curb its impact on our planet.

Then the pandemic hit

Since the pandemic began, our plastic dependency has increased at a rapid rate. Some estimates say we’re using 129 billion face masks and 65 billion plastic gloves per month globally. According to marine conservation organization OceansAsia, an estimated 1.56 billion face masks ended up in our oceans in 2020.

With mask mandates, hygiene concerns, and efforts to reduce the spread of COVID-19 largely to blame, the snowball effect of PPE pollution is to some extent unavoidable.

But it’s not just masks and gloves that have begun to litter our oceans and streets over the past year. Since March, many coffee shops and grocery stores have banned reusable cups and bags for fears of virus contamination. With indoor dining shut down in many parts of the world consumers and restaurants have increased their demand for single-use plastic bags, containers and utensils. Our shopping habits have also had an impact. Since we’re all stuck at home, online shopping has rapidly increased; so too has plastic and other pollution from online retailers.

An opportune moment for plastic producers

Back in March of 2020, when fears about the virus’s ability to spread through surfaces were everywhere, the plastics industry pushed their products as “the most sanitary choice,” using studies to make reusable products seem like a more dangerous alternative, and more likely to spread the virus. Lockdowns had a disastrous impact on many industries, but for plastics producers they were a blessing for their bottom line.

On the flipside, the recycling industry has been hit hard. But why?

You probably remember the eeriness of the empty streets early on in the pandemic. Cars and trucks sat unmoving as the world largely ground to a halt. The cost of oil plummeted, partly as a result of this decreased demand. Since all plastics begin their life as fossil fuels, the lower cost of oil made it much cheaper to produce new plastics.

The battle between plastics producers and the recyclers who are attempting to reduce their impact on our planet is all about money —  a simple cost benefit relationship. When it’s cheaper for companies to buy new plastics than to purchase recycled materials, recyclers will always lose out. So too, does our planet.

The oil and gas industry had their sights set on plastic production as their way forward long before the pandemic began, driven largely by the rise of electric vehicles and a conscious move away from fossil fuels. As one Reuters special report explains, the industry plans to spend around $400 billion in the next five years on plants to make raw materials for plastic.

Even when our demand for PPE decreases, the plastics industry will still be firing on all cylinders, with plastic production expected to rise by an estimated 41% over the next fifteen years.

It’s time for a solution

The pandemic has fuelled extraordinary demand for personal protective equipment, which is forecasted to increase over the next few years. Sales of disposable face masks, for example, are expected to increase annually by 20% over the next five years.

This pandemic will end one way or another; but the waste we’ve created as a result will be with us for hundreds, if not thousands of years. We need new strategies to deal with this unprecedented increase in plastic pollution. These may range from developing sanitary methods to properly dispose of PPE, increasing research on sustainable materials, and encouraging the use of washable, reusable masks and respirators.

With pollution from PPE slowing down efforts to reduce the impact of plastic waste, it’s time we think about how we can curb its effects on our planet in whatever ways we can.

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