The coronavirus may have cleared the air for many big cities, but our reliance on plastic to protect ourselves from Covid-19, may prove dangerous for the environment.
The coronavirus has been the cause of hundreds of thousands of deaths and remains a very real threat. But the quarantines and the lockdowns to slow down its spread have had another effect: a better ecological footprint.
Air quality in many cities around the world has improved. For example, in Istanbul, air pollution has fallen by 30 percent. In China, the lower levels of nitrogen dioxide in January and February, equalled “removing a whopping 192,000 cars” from traffic, according to the Conversation. And Insider reported that NASA had seen India’s air pollution drop to a 20-year low within a week during lockdown.
Yet the pandemic has also increased the use of plastics. The use of masks, gloves, clear face shields or disposable personal protective equipment (PPE), both for civilians who wish to protect themselves while out in public –– shopping for groceries, for example –– and for healthcare professionals who are exposed to the virus on a daily basis, are on the up. In this time, we are undeniably and increasingly reliant on disposable plastics to keep ourselves and others protected from the disease.
Single use plastics have been a big part of our lives since the 20th century. They are made from petroleum and are not biodegradable, ending up buried in landfills or dumped into the ocean.
“Although plastic will not biodegrade (decompose into a natural substance like soil), it will degrade (break down) into tiny particles after many years. In the process of breaking down, it releases toxic chemicals (additives that were used to shape and harden the plastic) which make their way into our food and water supply,” says the Plastic Free Challenge website.
In a statement made to mark World Environment Day, Greenpeace Mediterranean says, “It isn’t plastics but hygiene that will protect us from the coronavirus.”
Expanding on the theme, Greenpeace Mediterranean warns against “information that the plastics sector has fed into the media that has no basis in science,” saying that the perception that single use plastics, such as bags, cutlery, plates and food containers offer protection against the coronavirus was –– falsely –– created.
“This is not true,” Greenpeace Mediterranean says. “Just because something is made from single use plastic does not reduce the risk of catching viral infections during use; on the contrary, plastic is one of the materials on which the virus has the longest survival time.”
The organisation recommends focusing on personal hygiene, and being considerate of our future, by protecting nature and “not creating mountains of contaminated plastic waste.”
According to a European Commission statement, “Every year, Europeans generate 25 million tonnes of plastic waste, but less than 30% is collected for recycling. Across the world, plastics make up 85% of beach litter. And plastics are even reaching citizens' lungs and dinner tables, with microplastics in air, water and food having an unknown impact on their health.”
The plastic waste generated can be avoided through some simple steps, such as banning plastic grocery bags, replacing plastic straws with metal or bamboo ones, and using refillable coffee cups in cafés rather than the plastic variety.
“The Single-Use Plastics Directive adopted by the European Parliament [on March 27, 2019] is an essential element of the Commission's Circular Economy Action Plan as it stimulates the production and use of sustainable alternatives that avoid marine litter,” a statement by the EC reads.
The European Parliament had previously adopted the Plastic Bags Directive in 2015. While not an EU member, Turkey too, in January 2019, started charging for grocery bags. This has led to a reduction in single-use carriers.
While Turkey has made headway in reducing pollution from plastic bags, and the lockdown has seen dolphins return to the Bosporus, masks and plastic gloves are still found at the bottom of the strait.
In a 2019 interview with TRT World, Greenpeace Mediterranean’s project coordinator Deniz Bayram pointed out, “According to the Turkish Statistical Institute’s 2017 plastic production data, the most plastic production is the packaging sector. The removal of products from plastic packaging, the reduction of plastic packaging, the meeting of plastic-free goods with the consumer is very important in the fight against plastic pollution.”
Bayram also praises the EU and Britain: “From the 2000s to now, especially in Europe, supermarkets have played a great role in reducing plastic bags as well as realising alternative models. It’s encouraging to see with every passing day supermarkets that offer plastic-free own brands, or feature plastic-free aisles, allowing customers a plastic-free shopping opportunity.”
Bayram adds: “In recent months, Great Britain’s government has come together and made various decisions with supermarket chains to fight against plastic pollution together … Our goal is to act together with millions of people against such an important global environmental problem and free our seas from plastic pollution.”
While forward-thinking countries are making progress towards a future less littered with plastic, the question over whether its use will decrease remains to be seen once the pandemic is under control and people adjust to “the new normal”.
World environment day
The United Nations has designated 5 June as World Environment Day. Every year since 1974, it has been celebrated in order to help draw attention to the benefits that nature gives humanity.
In 2020, the theme of World Environment Day is biodiversity. “Recent events, from bushfires in Brazil, the United States, and Australia to locust infestations across East Africa – and now, a global disease pandemic – demonstrate the interdependence of humans and the webs of life, in which they exist,” the UN website says.
The UN website warns that “Changing, or removing one element of this web affects the entire life system and can produce negative consequences.”
The UN also discusses the coronavirus that has killed more than 393,000 people worldwide since November 2019 and wreaked havoc on the world economy: “The emergence of Covid-19 has underscored the fact that, when we destroy biodiversity, we destroy the system that supports human life. Today, it is estimated that, globally, about one billion cases of illness and millions of deaths occur every year from diseases caused by coronaviruses; and about 75 per cent of all emerging infectious diseases in humans are zoonotic, meaning that they are transmitted to people by animals.”
According to the UN, “nature is sending us a message.” And humans would do well to heed it.