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Plastic in the Time of COVID-19: A Pandemic on the Rise

  • 3 min read

By Alexandra Amorosino

It is estimated that 129 billion face masks are being produced every month.

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve heard a lot about the world’s increased consumption (flour and toilet paper shortages, anyone?) and our digital dependence on Zoom and Netflix. However, another aspect of the pandemic has been under-reported - the boom in plastic consumption, namely single-use plastic products. 

While it’s true that due to the rounds and rounds (and rounds!) of lockdowns that were globally imposed we have seen promising spikes in cleaner air and water, we should know better than to believe this will do the trick and reset our other pandemic - the plastic pollution crisis. Quite the opposite. The long-term impact of the plastic generated during the pandemic will have a ripple effect on our oceans in the years to come. So what exactly caused the upsurge and is there anyone to hold accountable?

As always the answer is multifaceted. 

Firstly, and most importantly, lifestyle changes (takeouts and home-delivered groceries) coupled with a surge in production of disposable PPE caused items made from polymers polypropylene, polyethylene, and PET to skyrocket. It is estimated that 129 billion face masks are being produced every month - an amount that is so large that it could cover all of Switzerland - with 1.6 billion of them reaching the ocean in 2020. Gary Stokes, founder of OceansAsia, was one of the first to alert the public after surveying the beaches of an uninhabited island in Hong Kong where he found 70 face masks across a 100-meter stretch. Just think about how many times you’ve heard people say “Wait a minute, where did I put my mask?”. In most cases, they are talking about a single-use plastic mask and, 9 times out of 10 that mask is nowhere to be found. Unfortunately, those masks don’t just vanish into thin air, they become trash - destined to end up in the ocean or large landfills. 

Another unfortunate side effect of the pandemic is the newly improved image of plastic in the eyes of the public as a life-saving, evergreen resource. At the start of the outbreak, there was an overall lack of research on how the virus spread and governments recommended that reusables should be left at home as a precaution. With that, grocery stores defaulted to plastic bags, with many US states placing plastic bans and surcharges on hold. This benefited anyone that decided to take advantage of the relaxed regulations because, as the oil market collapsed, plastic became cheaper than ever. Oil, as well as natural gas, is a key raw material used in the production of plastic, and with the demand for oil dropping due to the economic decline, it became more profitable to buy, further widening the cost gap between plastic and alternative materials. The worry is that we are going to witness the return of an attitude of indifference in seeing single-use plastic used in everyday life, and people will choose to turn a blind eye to the careless handling of plastic waste. As John Oliver eloquently said in his recent episode on plastics: “Lies go down easier when you want them to be true”.

While I believe it’s necessary to acknowledge the unprecedented nature of the COVID-19 outbreak, and how unprepared we were on many fronts, it’sas important to refocus our efforts on reducing plastic waste. To put into perspective how detrimental our habits have been while we stayed locked in at home, consider the fact that there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050 if we do not take action. So if you, like me, are searching for proactive steps that can help cancel out the damage done by the COVID-19 pandemic I recommend you to, first of all, start withrefusing plastic. Secondly, take a look at our fantastic blog post with practical and easily implementable actions about how to reduce plastic in your life. Check it out here, it’s worth the read! Lastly, consider contacting your members of Congress and asking them to support the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act. ICYMI, BRINGiT’s co-founder Karin Heck was instrumental in introducing language to the bill that addresses the single-use plastic produce (SUPP) bag problem! 

- Alexandra Amorosino