Plastic usage has been on the rise with annual production now towering over 368 million metric tonnes, and single-use plastic (SUPs) production makes up approximately half of this huge figure (1). Despite a general increase in global environmental awareness over the past decade as seen through a series of laws aimed at reducing plastic production, the increase in production continues. These laws have included bans against SUPs, with 8 states banning single-use plastic bags entirely; this trend in legislation represents an active effort to move towards other packaging materials (2)(3). Despite these new laws, a study by National Geographic predicts the amount of plastic debris will almost triple by the year 2040 — a trajectory that excludes the new effects of the Covid-19 pandemic (4).
The problem with plastic usage, especially single-use plastic, lies in the fact that since 2018, the recycling rate of plastics has not risen to much more than 9%, meaning that plastics are either discarded, burned, or put into landfills (5). Though social media often features images of turtles choking on plastic straws or washed up whales with their stomachs bursting with plastic debris, the 13 million tonnes of discarded plastic debris added to the oceans each year is only part of the problem (6). On top of this, plastic production contributes to climate change, with over 6% of oil consumed globally used to produce plastic, thus adding more carbon dioxide to our atmosphere.
How is the current pandemic further impacting this problem? The Covid-19 pandemic has not only grown into an unprecedented health crisis, but also worsened our already-prevalent environmental crisis. The pandemic has caused a great surge in the consumption and production of SUPs, posing an even greater threat to the environment and wildlife and to the future of environmental awareness (2).
The first and perhaps most obvious source of SUPs needed for the pandemic is the production of personal protective equipment (PPE), within both the healthcare industry and the general public. Single-use face masks make up a large proportion of this increase, with estimates that up to 129 billion face masks may be used globally per month (8). But this specific factor isn’t the only one driving the increase; with restaurants and cafes relying on takeaway options, packaging demands have increased by 40% and SUPs are economically the cheapest materials to use (2)(8).
The United States is no longer taking an active stance against plastic usage and have understandably prioritized the pressures to save lives and support the economy. However, for many states, any advances made towards the reduction of SUPs have been shattered. These states include California, Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire and New York to name a few, all of which have delayed bans or lifted them entirely (2). Some grocery stores have even gone a step further by banning customers from bringing their own reusable bags in an attempt to reduce the spread of coronavirus (2).
This shift away from the environmental consciousness of both corporations and consumers could have a long-term detrimental effect. If state governments continue to downplay the environmental crisis, the oceans and atmosphere will continue to deteriorate. The only hope is that this pandemic does not represent a permanent shift away from an overall trend towards plastic consumption and production decreases and that governments will lead the way in decreasing the usage of SUPs by reestablishing plastic bans, especially with the end of the pandemic in sight.
- Patrício Silva, Ana L, Prata, Joana C, Walker, Tony R, Duarte, Armando C, Ouyang, Wei, Barcelò, Damià, & Rocha-Santos, Teresa. (2021). Increased plastic pollution due to COVID-19 pandemic: Challenges and recommendations. Chemical Engineering Journal (Lausanne, Switzerland : 1996), 405, 126683.