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Analysis: Are we falling back in love with plastic amid COVID-19?

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By Darren McCaffrey, Political Editor
Garbage, including plastic waste, is seen on the beach of the Costa del Este neighbourhood in Panama City, Panama
Garbage, including plastic waste, is seen on the beach of the Costa del Este neighbourhood in Panama City, Panama   -   Copyright  LUIS ACOSTA/AFP

We have previously spoken about the potential green opportunities presented by this unprecedented crisis.

As the world literally closed down earlier this year, global carbon emissions plummeted. In fact, between January and April they dropped by an incredible 8.6 per cent with the expectation that, by the end of the year, overall emissions will be somewhere between four and eight per cent below expectations. Good news for the planet and our health.

But, we are falling back in love with plastics and there is one part of the environment that looks like it will inevitably suffer: oceans. After years of successful campaigning to ditch it, plastic has become our saviour.

It had all been going so well. Gone were the plastic straws, bottles were being made from recyclable glass again, lots of us started buying reusable coffee cups and plastic bags had become thoroughly unfashionable. Those images of fish wrapped in difficult-to-disintegrate plastic and talk of microplastics getting into our diet genuinely seemed to have swayed the public mood.

How things have changed. From face masks and visors to gloves, almost every aspect of personal protective equipment is made from disposable plastic. According to Grand View Research, globally the disposable market for masks is expecting exponential growth; rising from an estimated €708 million last year to €147 billion this year.

Supermarkets have introduced plastic screens at checkouts to protect staff, some fruit and vegetables are again being wrapped and we are shopping online so much more (which again means more wrapping, more plastic). In March alone some 2.5 billion customers are believed to have logged onto Amazon’s website; a massive 65 per cent increase on 2019. How many of us have ordered takeaways during lockdown? They're often stored in plastic containers with - yes, you’ve guessed it - plastic knives and forks and plastic pots for condiments too.

All of this is leading to a rising tide of plastic waste. Reports from rubbish collectors from Dublin to Athens suggest that plastic is taking up an increasing proportion of their weekly collections. Much of it is simply not recyclable, or won’t be recycled. Many plants were closed during lockdown and there are continuing concerns about the virus surviving on certain materials for many days.

Much of this plastic is simply ending up in landfill sites, but, unlike the other rubbish, it will take many more years to decompose. In fact, no one really knows how long it takes plastic to break down, but it is certainly measured in hundreds of years. Outside of Europe, rubbish is often left in open dumps, exposed to the elements. Some of it will end up in our oceans.

Plastic broken down by the salt and the sun ends up as microplastics, which are eaten by fish and shellfish and are then, in turn, eaten by us. Plastic can often prove to be a killer of sea life too. Fish, turtles and whales can often choke on plastic bags or get tangled in plastic netting. Things had been getting better, but coronavirus looks set to change that.

For the past couple of decades, a concerted effort has been made to wean us off disposable plastic. A report last year by GlobalWebIndex showed that 53 per cent of people surveyed in the US and UK had reduced their single-use plastic over the last 12 months. Yet, now plastic is our protector, it is literally helping to save lives. But will that immediate benefit be to the long-term detriment of our planet?

Darren McCaffrey is Euronews' Political Editor.