The COVID-19 pandemic has greatly exacerbated the plastic pollution crisis that is now rapidly approaching a tipping point. Disposable masks and gloves litter streets and waterways, while useless plastic bags and packaging are forced onto communities. Addressing the pollution crisis requires the same urgency as the current pandemic, as it poses immediate and long-term risks to global health.
In recent years, concerned citizens have made significant progress tackling the issue of single-use plastics, advocating for bans, corporate accountability and systems of reuse.
Several states paused their plastic bag fees early in the pandemic out of an abundance of caution but have since reinstated them, as reusable bags have not contributed to the spread of COVID-19. Much of the concern around reusable bags early in the pandemic was manufactured by plastic industry, claiming that disposable plastics were needed to keep people safe and that reusables were dirty and dangerous. We must not ignore the long-term impacts of single-use plastics on our health for a false sense of short-term safety pushed by polluters.
While plastic has played a vital role during the pandemic as PPE for health care professionals, most people do not need single-use masks and plastic gloves to stay safe. We can protect ourselves and others with social distancing, reusable masks and regular hand-washing. Disposable PPE should be reserved for health care and other essential workers to ensure an adequate supply remains available (though even hospitals can adopt more reusable masks and gowns and improve supply chain resiliency, as well as prevent pollution).
And we definitely do not need the flood of packaging and bags that the plastic industry has lobbied for. Over 130 health experts from 20 countries recently asserted that reusables can be used safely during the pandemic. Studies have shown that the coronavirus can live on plastic surfaces longer than most, so plastic is certainly not inherently safer.
As all of this disposable plastic mounts, we are now faced with the problem of what to do with it all. Our world was already facing a truckload of plastic entering our oceans daily before COVID-19, and the current crisis has exponentially worsened that. A recent study in Environmental Science & Technology found that the world is using an estimated 129 billion masks and 65 billion gloves each month during the pandemic. Not only does this threaten the environment, it threatens our health.
As the waste continues to mount, the United Nations has raised the possibility of locally manufactured incinerators, which would worsen air quality for surrounding communities. Disproportionately, neighborhoods near landfills and incinerators are low-income and communities of color — the same communities that are burdened with higher rates of COVID-19 illness and death. We cannot burn our way out of this problem.
The entire life cycle of plastic is dangerous. Almost all plastic is made from fossil fuels. Petrochemical facilities are often located next to communities of color. The plastic industry has continually treated these communities as dispensable in their quests for profits. This environmental racism must be stopped.
For years, the plastics industry has tried to convince us that its products were necessary, touting convenience and cleanliness. They told us that if we just recycle and participate in cleanups, we can tackle the pollution crisis. Decades later, we know that has not worked. Only 9% of all the plastic ever made has actually been recycled, and we are drowning in this nearly indestructible material. Further, the recycling industry has all but collapsed. We cannot recycle our way out of the plastic epidemic. The plastic industry continues to mislead the public about the overall benefits of plastic. It is time for us to stop listening to other views.
While certain applications of plastic must continue for medical and safety reasons, we should phase it out wherever possible to avoid its long-term impacts to health and the environment. We do not need single-use plastic bags, packaging, utensils or cups. The general public does not need single-use masks or gloves during the pandemic.
What we need is a new approach that looks beyond convenience to understand all of the environmental impacts of a material before it is produced and marketed to the world. We should not be destroying the Earth and communities for momentary convenience. It is time to move toward green and hygienic systems of reuse.
John Hocevar is the Greenpeace USA Oceans Campaign director. Dr. Jodi Sherman is an associate professor of Anesthesiology and Epidemiology in Environmental Health Sciences and director of the Program on Healthcare Environmental Sustainability at Yale.
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