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Great! Another Single-Use Plastic... COVID's Environmental Impact: Part 1


A turtle swims through the ocean with a disposable face mask interrupting his flow.

We all know the disruption of COVID-19 on our lives - but what about its impact on our environment? That was the challenging thought we set ourselves this week (and next). There is no doubt about it, the reduced movement around the world has led to a number of environmental benefits, but have the issues developed from the pandemic overridden their impact? We investigate...

OUR DISPOSABLE MASK PROBLEM

To begin with anything else would be ignoring the most glaring of environmental challenges developed from the pandemic - waste. The simple fact of it is COVID-19 has worsened the ocean plastic pollution problem, and significantly so. The sudden rush and requirement for copious amounts of face coverings and masks around the world has already begun hitting our oceans and general environment - hard. 

The market for disposable face coverings now tops $74 BILLION having dramatically increased since the beginning of the pandemic. From a study in Environmental Science and Technology, an estimated 194 BILLION disposables are now used worldwide month to month. From initial estimates here in the UK, there could be as many as 1.6 BILLION disposables heading to landfill every month, with approximately 31% of the UK population opting for single-use. These figures represent a worrying trend. A trend of which landfill is an optimistic outcome. Many, or perhaps the majority, are disposed by, shall we say, alternative methods. They’re thrown away on the streets and beaches, blown from our hands and from our bins; carried by the wind to their new destination - our oceans.

As with a large proportion of the population, this writer was blissfully unaware of the harm posed to the environment from PPE. That was until discovering that the billions of disposables used per day are made of polypropylene - which is part of the thermoplastic family. GREAT! Another single-use plastic…and a particularly problematic one at that. Even when disposed of correctly, PPE cannot be recycled as it is considered medical waste - either ending up in landfill or being incinerated and letting off the toxic fumes that plastics do. In the natural environment, as they are made from a non-biodegradable plastic, they will take up to 450 years to decompose fully. FOUR HUNDRED AND FIFTY YEARS. But it is our oceans where the sudden influx of disposable face masks have the potential to cause the most devastation. The homes of millions of aquatic life are quickly becoming polluted with a new kind of devastatingly non-bio plastic; in addition to the plastic bottles, plastic wrap, plastic packaging (and so the list goes on)…They are littering the seabed, washing up on beaches and disrupting the ocean homes of its inhabitants. The overt danger that non-biodegradable disposables pose is that they can be easily mistaken by sea creatures for food. Sounds ridiculous right? Have a look at the photo below.

Are they masks or jellyfish? Illustrates how similar they could look through the eyes of a turtle by showing both float in the ocean.

If you were a turtle, would you know the difference? In case you didn’t spot it, the above photo illustrates just how easily turtles could become confused between the jellyfish they expect to discover when looking for food, and the disposable face masks that have blown into their ocean homes. As you may be aware, turtle’s have a unique digestive system which involves them swallowing a lot of water while eating. To dispose of the excess, they have a reverse filter which, in normal circumstances, would stop food from being thrown up with the water. However, as they are mistaking yucky masks for yummy jellyfish, masks are being caught in their stomachs - and stay there (since they would take longer than their life spans to decompose). Given the suggestion that there will soon be more masks than jellyfish in our oceans, turtles are at particular risk if we don’t act now.

A bird tangled in a disposable masks elastic.

And their risk is not limited to creatures of the ocean. Due to the elasticated straps that stretch over our ears, birds, turtles and countless other creatures are becoming tangled and quite often trapped in their embrace. It is outrageous - other animals should not suffer for our lack of awareness and often frankly complete carelessness.

In countries without an established and developed infrastructure to deal with waste, this issue heightens considerably. For example, in cities including Hanoi and Bangkok, the sudden increased production and subsequent disposal has seen medical waste increase two-fold; producing 150 to 280 tons MORE per day than before the pandemic. And where do you think all this extra waste winds up? Even in countries with established waste management, for months at the beginning of the shutdowns (when disposables were at their most prevalent), waste centres were not open and bins were not being collected. Where do you think those masks wound up?

The statistics are overwhelming. They’re alarming. Implemented out of panic based decision making in response to the pressing nature of the pandemic, the call to wear a face covering without specificity was initially understandable. Yet simply continuing to view disposables as collateral damage in the fight against COVID-19 is a careless statement toward the environment we have been working so hard to protect. As perfectly surmised by GreenBiz, “fighting the pandemic should not come at the cost of stemming the flow of plastic pollution into the environment”. Doubters will question the impact a simple dropped mask can make in the context of the world - but it's like that old saying: ‘It’s only one...said 8 billion people. Continuing as we are (with billions of masks being used and disposed of every day), we risk the frightening reality of undoing years of progress against plastics, in their many forms. 

SO WHAT CAN WE DO?

There are a few easy yet powerful changes YOU can make at home to help stem the impact of the influx. Firstly, and most evidently, cut out disposable face coverings if you can and opt for those which are reusable and machine washable. For those of you medically unable to choose reusable face coverings, investigate alternatives like visors or shields. And if you are unable to do any of that - always ensure to cut the elastic to protect birds and other animals from becoming tangled in them. Choosing to act on this: choosing to reuse; choosing to only use disposables when there is no alternative, and making sure to dispose of them correctly; giving them the best chance of avoiding our oceans. These are the acts that will define how bad this problem escalates. All change starts with one - make it YOU.

HOW TO CONCLUDE...

From simple investigation it has become abundantly clear that this wave of disposable face coverings could become an epidemic in itself. A plastic pandemic that needs a response with the utmost power and speed. The Liberal Democrat’s recently highlighted in parliament, alongside members of the Green party, that the government must do more to promote the use of reusable alternatives to disposable, single-use, polypropylene plastic face coverings. We concur. So much so that we are today launching a petition based on this very matter. Sign our petition at this link and show your support! It only takes a minute or two and can make all the difference.

Next week we will be looking at the other side of COVID’s impact on the environment - the positive side. In a year filled with so much badness and struggle, the concept may seem almost unrecognisable, but positivity still exists! And next Monday we will show you that even from a global pandemic - fantastic consequences can and have occurred. Until then, in the words of the general of positivity Matthew McConaughey, “just keep livin’”.


Would you like to see ReLove offer a reusable alternative to disposable face masks, preferably machine-washable and compostable (should such an option exist)? Please let us know in the comments below or pop us a message.

 

A survey from the first year of the pandemic estimated that of the 58.8 million disposable face masks being used daily in the UK, 90% are discarded after one use. That's 53.3 million non-biodegradable masks going to landfill every single day with who knows how many more making their way to the ocean instead. With 9 in 10 still wearing face masks every day as of August 2021, it doesn't seem as if this problem is going away any time soon.

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