Has the Pandemic Plastic Problem Set Us Back?


Disclaimer: The views expressed within this article are entirely the author’s own and are not attributable to Wessex Scene as a whole.

While the coronavirus pandemic has certainly changed a lot of things that we were used to, it has not always been for the better. While the isolating months have been particularly difficult for some, perhaps one of the most negative effects is that we appear to becoming more reliant on single-use objects, a destructive attribute that we were close to eradicating from our previous normal.

There has certainly been a large increase in single-use plastic. The pandemic has increased our reliance on products we can just use and throw away, seeking the environmentally detrimental option compared to reuseable ones. In one article describing plastic waste during the pandemic, it was found that hospitals in Wuhan, China were using more than 240 tonnes of single-use plastic products during the peak of the pandemic. This is six times the amount they were previously using pre-pandemic. If that increase was continued over into other countries, then the US would use the equivalent of a year’s supply in only two months.

It suffices to say that the amount of single-use plastic has increased by a huge amount. While it is understandable that people’s health should be put at the forefront during the pandemic, it seems stupid to increase the irreversible and negative effects we have on the planet. Increasing our plastic production and use is diminishing all the positive environmental work that had previously been accomplished. As microplastics expert Dr Christian Dunn commented in a BBC article:

‘Covid will eventually go away, plastic waste won’t, it’s here forever. While we need to be very conscious of the health implications, we cannot allow ourselves to be distracted.’

It’s also not just the production and use of these plastics that are a problem. Due to their overwhelming numbers and human error, many of these plastics are improperly dealt with. Items that can be recycled are incinerated, or just thrown directly into landfills. Just 1% of improperly disposed single-use face masks accounts for more than ten million items, weighing roughly 35 tonnes. Some of these even end up in bodies of water, producing more problems such as filtration issues, animal hazards, and increased microplastics. Even reusable coffee cups have recently been shunned by chains, stating that they ‘might not be clean’ and ‘could be hazardous to health’. This meant that during the start of the pandemic, single-use coffee cups were the only option available. This might not have been too much of a problem beforehand, but since coffee shops were some of the few available socialising options, quite a lot of bored people found themselves in their doors and with coffee cups in their bins.

Despite this, some have commented on how the pandemic seems to have been beneficial to the environment. You may even remember seeing the comparison of city skylines. One was previously full of smog, whereas the one during the pandemic was clear. Unfortunately, while there were certainly fewer cars on the road, this didn’t necessarily mean it was a good thing. As the demand for oil was so low, the prices dropped. Petrol stations were showing impressively low figures for once. However, because oil was so low to purchase, it became more profitable to just make more plastic products rather than recycling them.

Does this mean we’re completely set back? The planet and our sustainable choices have certainly taken a hit from the pandemic. It was not something that had been prepared for, in any case. The prioritisation of human health over the Earth has delayed, or even reversed, many policies that were meant to curb our reliance on hazardous materials. More effort from companies and governments needs to be made. Whether that starts right now or after the pandemic, there needs to be a greater focus on sustainability, even more so than before. If not, we ruin the chances to complete the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.

Goal 12, ‘Responsible Consumption and Production’, directly talks of recycling, including plastics. They claim that by 2050, ‘the equivalent of almost three planets could be required to sustain current lifestyles’. Goal 14, ‘Life Below Water’, asks to keep plastic bags out of the ocean to improve marine and coastal biodiversity. It would be quite abysmal if the previous plastic pollution was just replaced with single-use face masks. Goal 3 also talks of vaccinations, but I’m not sure we’re ready to have that conversation.

I’m not a scientist, a businessperson or a government official, but I am someone who is able to read the facts and figures and understand the weight of what they are saying. It’s important not to just get overwhelmed by the enormous figures and give up. While we can’t do much ourselves, reducing the request for plastic products will help the situation. I still think about the pre-pandemic days where plastic cotton buds were eradicated from existence. That was exciting! And was one of the first steps towards a sustainable future. It is true that we’ve been set back, but with effective goals and a more conscious existence, this shouldn’t be the end of our environmental journey.


Wessex Scene Editor 21/22. Living vicariously through other people.

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