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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.

Citing health concerns, reusable cups (which had become a badge of environmental do-goodism) were temporarily banned from coffee shops, including Starbucks, which had previously introduced charges for its un-recyclable single-use cups.

The UK government suspended its 5p plastic bag fee for online supermarket deliveries during the pandemic, which accounts for an incredible amount of plastic bags; Tesco, for example saw online sales for delivery rise by 48.5 per cent in the three months to 30 May. Controversially, the UK even delayed its much anticipated and celebrated ban on plastic straws.

When fully reopened on July 4, shops, restaurants, and pub chains installed perspex screens in the hope of reducing droplet transmission of Covid-19. As a result of this, the UK brand Perspex increased its acrylic sheet production by 300 per cent from February to March. Though not single-use, it’s unclear how such screens will be disposed of when no longer needed.

With a second lockdown in the UK underway as of this week, the production of, and the reliance on plastics will start to increase again. We have reached a point now where, if we do not wish to be a part of the problem, we need to remove ourselves as much as we possibly can from the “plastic universe”.

There are some simple things we can do; there are fantastic alternatives out there to plastic face masks, including silk and cotton. We can refuse plastic bags when we pick up our shopping or when it is delivered, this will make supermarkets rethink their approach. We can stop getting take away food and drinks, which will inevitably use unnecessary plastic. There are fantastic sources on plastic alternatives online, offering you the chance to be proactive and discover how you can make small changes.

Until we get back to that point before lockdown where reducing our use of plastics was becoming fairly straightforward, we now have to try a little harder in the face of adversity. It will get better, but between now and then, let’s think about the health of the environment as well as our own. ------- One way you can be proactive against the overuse of plastic during the pandemic, is by signing the petition to George Eustice - Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, to stop UK supermarkets using plastic bags in their collection and delivery services:

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