Our Burning Planet

OP-ED

Fighting Covid-19 should not mean that we lose the war against plastic pollution

The Covid-19 pandemic has ramped up the use of disposable plastic items, says the writer. (Photo: Adobestock)

As Covid-19 infection rates soar around the world, people are increasingly relying on single-use plastics as protection. The emerging threat to our environment from ‘Covid waste’ needs to be understood and addressed sooner rather than later.

The rise in Covid-19 cases across the world is seeing a parallel rise in vast quantities of plastic waste. Essential single-use plastic items that help to protect against the spread of the virus, such as masks, gloves, protective gowns and face shields, now commonly known as “Covid waste”, are piling up in landfills and adding a new dimension to the global pollution crises.  

Additionally, an upsurge in microplastics – both primary microplastics manufactured at a small size and typically found in hygienic and sanitation products, and secondary microplastics that will eventually break down from single-use Covid plastic waste items – is drastically reversing gains made in reducing our dependence on plastic and in curbing plastic pollution.

Plastic Free July, which marks its 10th anniversary this year, is an annual global call to find alternatives to plastic for items we use daily, lessen plastic pollution and preserve the environment. At least 90% of all waste in the ocean is plastic.

Unfortunately, this year the Covid-19 pandemic has ramped up our use of disposable items. Clearly, the frontline healthcare workers and others who come into contact with potential Covid-19 positive people require protective gear that is best discarded in a safe and environmentally friendly manner after use. However, the use of single-use plastic items in wider society to curb the spread of Covid-19, such as the use of disposable masks by those adhering to regulations in the restaurant and food industry, needs to be revisited.    

The SARS-CoV-2 virus is a respiratory virus whose primary route of spread is through the inhalation of droplets. It may be possible that someone who touches a virus-contaminated object or surface and then touches their mouth or eyes may infect themselves. However, to date research has only confirmed the primary route of transmission. Currently, no scientific evidence exists to show that disposable items are safer to use during the pandemic compared to reusables. 

In fact, some preliminary evidence shows that the SARS-CoV-2 virus might survive longer on plastic surfaces than on other surfaces that have been tested. 

Social distancing, hygienic behaviour including washing hands correctly and frequently, avoiding touching the face with unwashed hands, and cleaning and disinfecting highly used surfaces are far more important in stemming the virus than the use of disposable items. Furthermore, in light of the virus’ highly fragile lipid structure, and thus its susceptibility to soap and water, contaminated reusable items can be effectively disinfected using appropriate detergent, soap and disinfection products.

We should be aware that plastic waste in water resources also includes the microplastics found in soaps, detergents and other cleaning products which we are using more of during this time, and which make their way into wastewater. 

With the relaxation of lockdown regulations, more businesses in South Africa opened up in July 2020, operating under strict guidelines of sanitising, mask wearing and social distancing. But along with this, we have seen the growth of a notion that single-use items are safer and allow more reliable adherence to basic hygiene rules. 

As we balance the reopening of our economy with saving lives, we must also find ways to balance our use of plastic with the protection of our environment, particularly our freshwater sources which are also being impacted by plastics. 

To start with, we must adjust our thinking about and behaviour with plastics. Despite a fourth consecutive increase of the plastic bag levy – now at 25 cents a bag – statistics show that the rising cost of a plastic bag is not a deterrent and has not resulted in effective behaviour change since its initial implementation in 2003. We know that behaviour change cannot rely simply on implementing punitive measures. Society at large, including industry and the public, needs to understand why plastic waste is detrimental to our environment and our health. 

While researchers are working to understand the impact of this threat to the environment and human health – the Water Research Commission (WRC) is funding research that aims at better understanding the health and ecological implications of microplastics in our environment, specifically microplastics found in South African freshwater resources – we need to change our behaviour. 

It is visually easy to see the impact of large pieces of single-use plastics in our environment. However, with smaller plastic particles such as microplastics, it is far harder to see the negative effects at a glance, even though the microplastics ingested by fish in our oceans may ultimately end up on our dinner plates. 

Currently, many techniques for effective plastic waste disposal are time-consuming and very expensive. Although South Africa recycles more than many other developing countries, there is room for additional home-grown solutions that can provide ways to reuse plastic waste better. 

Similar to the multi-faceted fight against the Covid-19 pandemic and the wide effort to change hygiene behaviours to reduce our risk, consumers and corporations must be jointly part of efforts to stem the overuse of plastics and opt for alternatives that support the environment and human health.   

When we do use plastic, we also need to ensure that it is safely and quickly disposed of. This is now critical to avoid the spread of Covid-19. The pandemic has brought to light severe service delivery inefficiencies in water supply and water quality, which in turn might affect the ability of communities to effectively follow recommended hygiene practices such as hand washing. 

Most of the communities affected by water supply issues also do not have services and facilities to dispose of solid waste appropriately, often resulting in this waste contaminating limited water sources. 

We should be aware that plastic waste in water resources also includes the microplastics found in soaps, detergents and other cleaning products which we are using more of during this time, and which make their way into wastewater. 

In South Africa, where several wastewater-treatment plants are not functioning optimally, these microplastics can eventually make their way into freshwater sources. 

With the spotlight on basic health, safety and sanitation at household and community level to prevent the spread of Covid-19, the pandemic provides an opportunity to improve waste disposal systems that reduce both contagion in the short term and pollution from emerging contaminants such as microplastics, in the long term. 

Currently, many techniques for effective plastic waste disposal are time-consuming and very expensive. Although South Africa recycles more than many other developing countries, there is room for additional home-grown solutions that can provide ways to reuse plastic waste better. 

The recent announcement by Coca-Cola Beverages South Africa that plastic 2l bottles will now be returnable, with consumers getting a discount on their next purchase, is an example of such an initiative. According to the beverage company, the bottles can be reused up to 14 times before they are recycled and made into new bottles – effectively eliminating their plastic bottles as waste and contributing to the circular plastic economy. 

Recycling is one of the most important steps in establishing a truly circular economy where waste materials are converted into valuable products to be resold and reused. Altering the way we produce, consume and, importantly, discard our plastics – by channelling them to a secondary manufacturing process, rather than a landfill – will keep these materials circulating and reduce waste and pollution. 

Waste pickers/reclaimers also play an integral role in ensuring the diversion of recyclable materials out of waste streams. As they continue to be involved in recycling activities during the Covid-19 pandemic, their safety is paramount for them to maintain their livelihoods. To this end, the South African Waste Pickers Association, with reference to global best practice such as that advised by the Global Alliance of Waste Pickers, has come up with recommendations for waste pickers regarding the coronavirus. 

Several industries are also beginning to look at new ways of using waste and creating value from waste. At a time when South Africa has shed over three million jobs in a matter of months, the inevitable increase in single-use plastic could catalyse technological and infrastructure development and the growth of new business opportunities for the waste sector, which could contribute to employment creation.

Researchers believe that by 2050 there will be more plastic than fish in our oceans. Our collective behaviour as individuals, institutions and industry is integral to stemming the tide of plastic that threatens our quality of life. 

While we boldly and collectively fight against Covid-19 and its immediate health risks, we must not quietly create another public health catastrophe. There is still room to reverse the impact of plastic pollution, but we must act now to stop the irreversible damage to our environment, our health, and our livelihoods. DM

Dr Eunice Ubomba-Jaswa is a research manager at the Water Research Commission and writes in her personal capacity.

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