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The plastic pandemic: COVID-19's impact on plastic pollution?

COVID-19 is a disruptive event with significant impacts beyond those related to health and our economy. It has been very complex to deal with.

In response to COVID-19, people are using more products made from long-lasting single-use plastics, such as masks, gloves, and certain types of packaging, causing increased greenhouse gas emissions. Land and marine environments across Europe are littered with these materials, harming ecosystems and animals.

According to recent research, a staggering 25,900 tonnes of plastic waste has been dumped into the ocean as a result of the pandemic. Which is the equivalent weight to 2,000 double-decker buses!

A large sum of the plastic is from medical waste which is generated by hospitals that dominate the contribution from personal protection equipment and online-shopping package material. There was especially a surge in waste when the vaccines were rolled out; around eight billion vaccine doses have generated an additional 144,000 tonnes of waste. Adding to this, more than 140 million test kits have been shipped globally, creating the potential of 2,600 tonnes of general rubbish - most of which will be plastic - and 731,000 litres of chemical waste, says a recent report.

This poses a long-lasting problem for the ocean environment and is mainly accumulated on beaches and coastal sediments. Ultimately, there needs to be a better medical waste management system put in place, especially in developing countries.

COVID-19 presents a critical opportunity to protect the vulnerable, provide health workers with the tools and support they need to do their jobs safely, prevent disease outbreaks, and prevent additional waves of infection.

At the same time, we should not overlook the other, perhaps greater, long-term challenges that humanity faces, such as the risks to the environment and public health posed by excess plastic waste.

Here are a few safe and easy tips to reduce plastic waste:

  • Use reusable PPE - Switching to reusable fabric face masks and avoiding disposable masks is an affordable and easy way to reduce plastic waste. The World Health Organisation advises that non-medical, well-fitting fabric masks, including homemade multi-layers masks, are an acceptable option for the general public under the age of 60 and who do not have underlying health conditions and do not feel unwell. They are easy to wash at home and can be brought from most retail stores!

  • Use a reusable cup - To minimize exposure, scientists agreed that hand washing is the most important step, not reducing the use of reusable water bottles in the workplace. Refilling at work or other public places requires being attentive to not touch the communal spigot, regardless of COVID-19 outbreaks, and regularly cleaning reusable water bottles. These can also be purchased from most retail stores/online.

  • Reduce waste at home - By properly planning meals, cooking with ingredients on hand (‘shopping’ in the fridge, freezer and pantry), and storing and freezing food to make it last longer, everyone can reduce plastic waste from the comfort of their own homes. This not only saves money and ensures that the most is made of groceries purchased, but also means less trips to the store.


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