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Covid-19: The Plastic Pollution Pandemic

When the world locked down earlier in the year we were all sharing stories and rejoicing at the pandemic’s environmental impact, as we looked up at our blue skies. In cities people could breathe cleaner air for the first time in decades. There were significant reductions in carbon emissions. We were all talking about how the planet was “healing” from the damage we had inflicted over the years. As we go into our second lockdown (in the UK), however, one thing has become clear; single-use plastic is back with a vengeance.

Over several decades leading up to 2020, governments around the world, of their own accord or from mounting public pressure, have worked to reduce waste from single-use disposable objects such as straws, utensils, coffee cups, beverage bottles and plastic bags. Policies have varied but included bans on plastic bags, polystyrene and straws, along with some countries even introducing taxes and fees on plastic bottles and single use cups.

Possibly the most encouraging shift we have witnessed, is the change in social norms around plastic waste. Prior to Covid-19 (if you can even remember what that was like), “Bring your own” bags, cups and other food-ware had become part of daily life for many consumers. Supermarkets were offering loose dry produce that you would purchase by filling up your own tupperware, and customers were purchasing washing powder and detergent by refilling old containers and bottles. It almost got to a point where there was a sense of guilt when you forgot to take your reusable bag to the shop; and awareness and social pressure is when real change can actually happen.

The spread of Covid-19 has dramatically changed all of this and indeed, in the wake of a global pandemic, some sort of “plastic renaissance” were inevitable.

In 2015, when the last comprehensive global dataset was compiled, 381 million tonnes of plastic were produced. However, the global market for packaging grew by 5.5 per cent during the pandemic.

The British Plastics Federation stated that supply packaging for food and drink, bleach, soap and medicines, in 2020, were operating at record capacities, whilst at the same time the EU Commission is currently being lobbied by plastic producers to delay or rethink its 2021 ban on single-use plastics.

In the healthcare industry, demand for single-use personal protective equipment (PPE) has skyrocketed. By late June, two billion items of PPE had been delivered to medical and care staff across England since the start of the Covid-19 outbreak, and almost 28 billion items have been ordered overall. As a result of the vast amounts of PPE being used in the UK the Marine Conservation Society, a non-profit that campaigns to protect British seas, found discarded PPE across 30% of beaches during its annual Great British Beach Clean.