The COVID-19 crisis has forced people across the world to wear personal protective equipment (PPE) such as disposable masks and gloves. But the waste created by these disposable items is having larger implications for the environment. In some respects, the pandemic has hindered the war on plastic waste.
If we take the example of the UK, an estimated 1,500 tonnes of facemasks and gloves are being thrown away each month. Dr Marco Aurisicchio is a co-lead at the Ocean Plastic Network. He says that "it’s been quite a shock to see how PPE has been impacting our society. We find it on the road and everywhere. During the lockdown, it's been really rare that I’ve not come across PPE in the grass".
Much of this monumental waste ends up in landfills, where it will take centuries to decompose. But a vast amount is also dropped on the ground, making its way into our eco-systems.
Masks have overtaken plastic bags to become one of the most common types of litter. In fact, the North London Waste Authority (NLWA) estimates that 102 million are thrown away every single week in the UK. That's enough to cover a football pitch 232 times over.
Councillor Clyde Loakes chairs the North London Waste Authority. He says there's a simple short-term measure that people can take. He encourages everyone who can, to use reusable facemasks and he highlights the fact that "we shouldn’t be forgetting that we are still in a climate emergency and we all need to be doing everything we possibly can".
The biodegradable solution
Plastic expert, Jason Hallet, also has another solution. He believes biodegradable material is the way to counteract the negative impact of future PPE production. "When you think about things that you might drop or throw in the bin (...) it's important that those have a very short lifetime," he told Euronews. "By very short, I mean in the order of years rather than centuries".
The only downside to this, he says, is the cost. Biodegradable materials are two to three times more expensive than ordinary plastics. If biodegradable material is the solution, governments may have to be prepared to spend more on PPE.
In the EU
In Spring of 2020, during the height of the COVID-19 crisis, the European Plastics Converters (EuPC) wrote a letter to the European Commission to postpone the implementation of the European directive that will limit the use of plastic. The request was refused. But it does show that lobbying for plastic is still very present.