The use of gloves, masks, gowns, and other personal protective equipment against COVID-19, as well as containers, screens and bags has increased, all derived from plastic. Faced with the fear of contagion, this disposable material, which from 2021 was going to suffer greater restrictions of use in many countries, resurfaces to protect us, but at the cost of continuing to damage the environment.
The year 2021 was to mark the end of plastic bags and other single-use plastics such as straws and cutlery. A few months after starting the implementation of these measures, this material, apparently in low hours, reappears like the pandemic that sustains it in the form of masks, gloves and protective masks, among other individual protection equipment, the so-called PPE.
To avoid the risk of infection from the coronavirus, millions of plastic products accompany us, most of them disposable.
Internationally, and according to data collected by the Chinese customs services, in March China sold about 3,860 million masks to the countries affected by the pandemic, in addition to 37.5 million protective suits, 16,000 respirators and 2 , 84 million COVID-19 detection kits.
Today, all these plastic products, most of them disposable and complicated to recycle - since they are sanitary ware - are manufactured by millions. In search of a material to stop contagions in the COVID-19 pandemic, plastic has been the best candidate.
“It is lightweight, inexpensive, durable, and versatile. It is rare to find all these characteristics in one material. But all of this comes with an environmental cost that, until recently, had not been included in the equation. That is starting to change”, Nicholas Mallos, senior director of the Ocean Conservancy Association's Trash-Free Oceans program, tells SINC.
In addition, it is not only lightweight, ideal as a personal protection material, "its great success also lies in its low economic cost”, Emphasizes to SINC Ethel Eljarrat, researcher at the Institute for Environmental Diagnosis and Water Studies (IDAEA) of the CSIC in Barcelona. Low oil prices due to the pandemic could allow a lot of plastic to be made even cheaper.
In addition to PPE, during confinement the use of other products such as food packaging and plastic bags has increased, items included in some measures.
“Not surprisingly, the consumption of single-use plastics has increased dramatically since the beginning of the pandemic: while people endure confinement, take-out and home delivery have exploded.”Says Mallos.
Since 2018, the European directive has progressively reduced the use of plastic bags, which were no longer provided free of charge in shops. As of January 2021, free delivery or not to consumers would be prohibited.
Eljarrat believes that achieving this measure now will be difficult due to the situation. "The pandemic has completely changed our plastic use habits”, Adds the expert. This disposable material has become the one preferred by society due to the fear of contagion and we will have to wait for the pandemic to be resolved to raise awareness about the waste problem.
To the decree on plastic bags was added the prohibition, thanks to Directive (EU) 2019/904 in the European Union of certain single-use items such as cotton swabs, cutlery, plates, balloon sticks and straws from July 2021, and which will be transposed into the Spanish legislation through the Draft Law on Waste and Contaminated Soils.
“The emergence of the pandemic should not affect this measure and the member states should face these objectives avoiding delaying them with the excuse of COVID-19”, Declares to SINC Eljarrat.
In this sense, the Ministry for the Ecological Transition and the Demographic Challenge (MITECO) has presented this week guidelines for the prevention and management of waste during this period. All of them are aimed at supporting the circular economy and compliance with European directives.
From the Ministry, in addition to the protection of workers, it is recommended, among other measures, to promote the use and manufacture of reusable hygienic masks; reduce the use of single-use gloves and be rigorous with hygiene measures; offer alcoholic solutions or disinfection gels for customers at the entrance and exit of the establishments; avoid the use of disposable tableware in the hotel industry; have a separate container for containers; and promote the use of reusable bags –which must be disinfected– rather than single-use ones.
But "For this to be effective, the Ministry should send clearer and more concrete messages to all of society”Says Eljarrat. According to the expert, it would be convenient to clarify which masks are reusable, make it clear that gloves do not provide an extra benefit, or indicate how reusable bags should be washed and disinfected.
A "plasticized" de-escalation
These recommendations arise from the increase in the use of single-use plastics during de-escalation for hygiene reasons. In the hotel sector, for example, it has been announced the installation of methacrylate partitions in receptions, the delivery of a prevention kit (mandatory protective masks and gloves) or the replacement ofbuffets in restaurants by single-dose packages for each client.
In addition, the use of plastic bags among hotel and restaurant staff to store street clothes that have been in contact with the outside will increase. Employees will only be able to wear a uniform and footwear at their workplace, according to the Ministry of Industry, Commerce and Tourism, so each day they will have to use a plastic bag, which was not necessary before the pandemic.
Plastic will also be more present than ever on the menus and menus of bars. When these cannot be "sung”, Digitized (QR) or noted on posters or blackboards, both hotels and restaurants must present their customers with disposable letters or opt for a laminated document that is disinfected after each use. Disposable pods will also be prioritized in self-service products such as cruets or oil cans.
What worries experts is that plastic waste related to food and drink makes up the majority of the trash that accumulates each year on beaches and along waterways.
“In fact, in 2018, all but two of the top 10 items posted by volunteers were food or beverage related, such as bottles, bottle caps, straws and silverware.”Mallos emphasizes about the Ocean Conservancy's collection campaigns.
The environment drowns in plastics
As with bottles and other products, much of the protective equipment used during the pandemic will end up in the environment. "Unfortunately, masks have already begun to be seen floating on the beaches of the Soko archipelago, located between Hong Kong and Lantau, which already indicates poor management of this new waste”, Says the CSIC researcher.
Until now, about 12 million tons of plastic waste reached the seas and oceans each year, the equivalent of 1,200 times the Tour Eiffel, according to Greenpeace. "If in recent years the environmental impact of these wastes has been observed in both the aquatic and terrestrial environment, it is evident that the increase in the production of plastic material as a result of COVID-19 will bring negative consequences for the environment”Says Eljarrat
The huge amount of masks, gloves and other PPE items, which are already filling streets and sidewalks around the world today, end up reaching the ocean. "And if they act like other types of debris, sea turtles, seabirds, and other ocean animals could ingest or become entangled in them.”Says Mallos.
In a study, published in the journalMarine PolicyFishing-related items, balloons, and plastic bags were considered to be the most dangerous items for these species to get entangled. Added to them was the risk of suffocation with bags and other plastic utensils that were ingested by the animals.
But the seas will not be the only ecosystems affected, the terrestrial ones will also be harmed not only by the longevity of this material - which can remain in the environment for hundreds of years - but also by its composition. Polymers, as well as the large number of chemical additives, show harmful effects, even for human health.
However, the material has found an ally in the pandemic to justify its presence. In fact, environmentalists fear that the plastics industry has exploited the health emergency to argue that single-use plastic is necessary to ensure safe people's lives. Given its current massive use, there is only the efficient management of this waste and proper recycling, in addition to promoting biodegradable materials.
Measures such as the reduction of single-use plastics were passed with readily available and affordable alternatives in mind. "Another solution to the plastic problem is found in the development of alternative materials to plastics that are more biodegradable and more recyclable, as well as the advancement in the design of new chemical additives that are less polluting”, He points out to SINC Eljarrat.
In Spain, a group of scientists from the CSIC's Institute of Agrochemistry and Food Technology (IATA), led by José María Lagarón, has already begun to develop biodegradable and viricidal filtration materials to introduce them into masks.
In addition to offering greater protection in these devices against SARS-CoV-2, the objective is to prevent the waste generated by the masks from becoming an environmental problem. The expendable filters obtained can be exchanged every day to avoid having to dispose of the product in its entirety.
“If today we had these solutions, the current increase in the use of plastic material would not be affecting the environment so negatively”, Concludes Eljarrat. After the pandemic, when health security is assured, society will have to be re-instilled in the importance of the importance of developing the circular economy.