It is clear the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic has had significant social, cultural and economic implications. It is easy to forget however, that some of the safety measures introduced and our response to the situation, have all had a huge impact on the environment.
Whether it’s test kits, hand-sanitizer bottles, disposable face coverings, or plastic gloves, the way we aim to protect ourselves has led to an unprecedented increase in single-use plastics. Our global waste footprint has massively grown in size. And that was even before anybody had heard of COVID-19.
Researchers estimate the amount of plastic generated globally since the outbreak of the pandemic at about 1.6 million tonnes per day. Worldwide, approximately 3.4 billion facemasks and face shields are being discarded daily!
But the problem does not end here. An inadvertent consequence of the pandemic has been a rise in demand for takeaway meals. As a result, there has been a greater demand for single-use food containers, cups and cutlery. No wonder then, conservationists worry about the devastating surge in plastics washing up along the shorelines or suffocating the ocean floor.
Globally, 3.4 billion facemasks and face shields are being discarded every day.
What has been done?
Taking a leaf from Sun Tzu (c. 544 BC) who said, Victory comes from finding opportunities in problems, several institutions have done just that! They are leading by innovative example. A year ago, the Royal Cornwall Hospitals Trust (RCHT) was among the first in the UK to start using a special remoulding machine to sustainably recycle used personal protective equipment (PPE). Turning this plastic waste into other useful items such as car bumpers, toolboxes or school chairs.
They used thermal heating technology which melts single-use polypropylene plastics. This innovative concept could be an invaluable game changer in the creation of a circular economy. Where, continual reprocessing of existing material could be utilised.
What else can be done?
Choose reusable face coverings where possible! Check out our blog – Disposable Face Coverings, the cost to our planet unmasked.
While recycling is definitely a step in the right direction, it remains only a part of the solution. Bosses at RCHT have announced, they want to move away from disposable PPE entirely. Their goal is to introduce reusable gowns and face coverings into both non-surgical and surgical areas of the hospital.
You Can Help
If using single-use masks, disposing of them correctly, is key. Animals can potentially get entangled, or accidentally ingest masks. Never litter, and try to avoid open bins, where masks could be picked up by the wind.
In addition, it is a good idea to remove the elastic ear loops before discarding a mask or at least, snip them in half. This helps to reduce the risk of it getting tangled around an animal should the mask be blown away from a landfill.
Last but not least, before we throw anything away, it’s time to reflect and realise, there really is no ‘away’ at all.