The highly contagious COVID-19 has left our society and its socioeconomic systems in the lurch. Even as citizens celebrate the idea of animals reclaiming the streets that were once theirs and a reduced carbon footprint thanks to travel bans and lockdowns, the coronavirus crisis could harm our environment in another, easily overlooked way: by normalising the use of single-use plastics.
A pre-coronavirus world was waging a war against single-use plastics. Big companies were called out for being major plastic polluters as many countries across the world began banning or at least considering a ban on single-use plastics. As microplastics settled in ocean waters, obstructing marine life and even our diets, the threat that plastic posed finally sunk in. The narrative wasn’t entirely against the lightweight and long-lasting material itself, but instead focused on the fact that it wasn’t being properly recycled and disposed of.
The threat of coronavirus and the risk its infectious nature poses have brought back plastic like never before. Whether it's for essential equipment like sanitisers, face masks, latex gloves, syringes, or even the disposable packaging that restaurants are relying on to reduce the risk of spreading the virus through home deliveries, the pandemic has catapulted the consumption of plastic. To be practical, the unpredictability of the virus demands it. You can’t blame someone for preferring a plastic bag they can use once and throw away over a reusable cloth bag, or using gloves to wipe off the food they’re buying and then disposing these gloves after a single use, when sustainability comes with a side of serious health concerns. Which is why, various nations including the US and UK have had no choice but to reverse guidelines that limit or prevent the production of plastic and instead give consumers an all-access pass to single-use plastics. Asia is seeing a similar penetration of single-use plastics in its society, and as the efforts to fight coronavirus are ramped up, so is the demand for personal protective equipment made from plastic.
From propagating it as a more sterile material to pointing out its ability to wrap fruits and vegetables necessary for survival in a protective bubble, plastic manufacturers in India are already calling for all barriers and bans on plastics to be removed immediately. Even while coronavirus can last on plastic surfaces for up to three days, its disposable nature is being played up in the pandemic situation. But while that could be conducive for current times, it poses a serious threat for a plastic-free future.
“In a crisis or disaster-like situation like this, there is no safe way to protect medical workers or provide food for millions of poor people on the street without plastic,” says Divya Ravichandran, the founder of Skrap—an environment sustainability firm that helps organisations, events and brands adopt sustainable practices and zero waste solutions. Pointing out that this is one of those uncontrollable blips on the anti-plastic agenda, she stresses that when we can’t control the production of single-use plastic, we should strongly focus on managing our waste instead. But while she advises that milk packets and plastic food packaging be washed, dried and stored until they can be collected and sent to recycling centres, she also confirms a scary speculation: that while garbage collection counts as an essential service, recycling it does not.
“In India, recycling is done by both, formal and informal sectors,” says Rahul Nainani, the founder of Raddi Connect, a recycling-based fundraising platform for NGOs, which works with a nationwide network of recyclers, garbage segregators and disposal units. “The issue is that informal recycling hubs like Dharavi and Malegaon have emerged as COVID-19 hotspots, while inter-state transfer of waste to formal recycling centres in Gujarat and Daman have been halted.” Nainani also talks about the need for a separate system that can ensure contactless collection of bio-hazardous waste including masks, gloves, pads and even condoms so as to reduce the risk of a waste collector catching the virus.
“There is no way we can fight the amount of plastic being produced right now, but we must be mindful that all protective plastic equipment being used by almost every household is now bio-medical waste that must be collected and incinerated at the right temperature,” Sunita Narain, the director of India’s Centre for Science and Environment, says when asked about whether plastic will become a problem in this pandemic. To address this issue on an individual level, Skrap’s Ravichandran recommends that every household divide their disposables as dry waste that can be recycled, biodegradable waste that can be composted to make things like bio enzyme cleaners, and toxic waste that includes surgical masks, sanitisers and gloves, so that it can be dumped separately. She also stresses that people should switch over to making and using cloth masks so that the disposable surgical masks can be saved for healthcare workers who have a greater need for them and a system to ensure their incineration.
However, becoming a biomedical hazard that threatens the spread of coronavirus to waste management workers isn’t the only effect plastic could have in this health crisis. As oil prices plummet to the lowest they’ve ever been, producing virgin plastic will become cheaper and therefore preferable over recycled plastic. “Recycled plastic and the price of oil is directly proportional,” explains Nainani. He points out that unlike many other countries, in India, recycling plastic is cheaper than producing it from raw materials. However, since the country is also one of the biggest importers of plastic from nations like Bangladesh and Pakistan, the waste produced within the country may eventually go straight to dumping grounds. “Since we don’t get high quality segregated waste that our factories can reuse, we still need to import waste when it comes to recycling, which is so ironic since we generate massive amounts of our own waste.”
But while this could lead to large stacks of plastic waste lying around in garbage dumps, it’s not all gloom and doom. “One good thing we’re seeing is that less of this plastic is going into oceans,” Nainani says. He states that while coronavirus will contribute to a plastic problem for our environment, the quarantine and lockdown that have accompanied the pandemic means that people are less likely to litter beaches, ponds or public spaces. Ravichandran agrees with this line of thought and says, “Being able to care about recycling is a privilege at a time when people are worried about their homes and job securities and will therefore be unresponsive to ideas of sustainability and zero-waste lifestyles in the short term. However, the unfortunate circumstances have had an interesting, almost unintended effect: people are now only buying what they need, so the amount of waste they generate automatically reduces.”
As we grapple with a global crisis, we are still trying to make sense of, now is not just the time to be mindful about washing our hands, but also the moment we take a step back from economic aspirations and materialistic desires to minimise what we consume, and how we get rid of it.
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