Coronavirus: Single-Use Plastics - Are We Overreacting?
Production and consumption of single-use plastics has dramatically increased as a result of the coronavirus pandemic [1-5]. During the crisis, the plastic industry falsely claimed that single-use plastics were the best materials to prevent the spread of the virus, which led to increases in the use of plastic bags and containers and the introduction of bans on reusable items [1-7].
For many of us, Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) has taken the form of single-use products such as gloves and face masks [1-2,6,8-13]. It has been widely circulated that 194,000,000,000 disposable face masks are used each month and if only 1% of those used are disposed of incorrectly, 10,000,000 will still end up in the environment [9-12]. Along with this increase in single-use plastic, surveys have also demonstrated that the public are now less concerned with plastic pollution than before the coronavirus outbreak [1,4,7].
The rise in single-use plastic as a result of the pandemic is therefore a very real concern. But are only a few months of pollution significant when compared to the scale of the entire plastic crisis? Is this just another example of the media using fearmongering to push their own narrative?
Over the past few months, the media have been captivated by PPE pollution and have been very keen to tell us about the devastation it is causing to our wildlife. The animal welfare organisation RSPCA mentioned in an article by The Independent that they have rescued approximately 900 animals from entanglement in disposable face masks . However, as no specifics were given in the article and there are no reports of animals encountering such issues in the mainstream media, it is difficult to understand the true scale or nature of this problem.
Since the first publications discussing plastic pollution in the 1970s, it has been widely acknowledged that marine plastic affects seabirds most significantly . Many seabirds forage for food on beaches, meaning they often encounter forms of plastic that have been washed ashore and collected in the strandline [14-15]. Therefore, it is easy to see how the elasticated straps on disposable masks could pose a risk of entanglement to birds foraging in this way. So how much of the pollution issue does entanglement represent?
Although entanglement in plastic poses a threat, ingestion of litter is much more commonly reported as a risk to wildlife . Consuming inedible items like plastic reduces feeding capacity and can ultimately lead to starvation . Seabirds also forage for their young and have been reported to feed them an alarming number of plastic items, which could prove fatal and potentially result in a reduced number of individuals surviving to breeding age .
Animals such as seabirds and sea turtles have been well documented to ingest forms of plastic that resemble their natural food sources . For example, sea turtles are most threatened by plastic bags as they resemble jellyfish, which comprise the majority of their diet . However, to many animals, items such as disposable face masks are unlikely to resemble any natural prey items, so does PPE really present a major risk to these creatures?
Microplastic pollution is possibly the most widespread and threatening issue associated with single-use plastics. Microplastics are plastic particles that either enter our environment as small particles or begin as larger plastics that fragment into thousands of tiny pieces over time [14-17].
We know that the majority of plastic pollution ends up in our oceans , however it has proven difficult to produce accurate data regarding the amount of plastic present there . A survey conducted in 2014 estimated the total floating microplastic load to be 35,500 metric tonnes, not taking into account any plastic that has sunk or been ingested . These small plastic particles or fragments are a major concern for marine life, as they accumulate chemical pollutants on their surface and are then ingested by organisms, meaning these toxins are carried up the food chain and accumulated in body tissues . But are PPE items likely to fragment into microplastics? And if they are, will they really be significant compared to the scale of the problem already?
What’s the Solution?
The incorrect disposal of PPE is a very real concern for our wildlife. In any form, single-use plastic pollution will have negative impacts on our natural environment and should be reduced as much as possible.
However, we need to prioritise.
Every problem currently facing our planet is important and needs to be addressed, but no individual is capable of fighting every environmental issue. If we can dispose of our single-use PPE correctly, this will have positive impacts for our wildlife. However, if this will be of detriment to other environmental issues that could be more pressing, then this should be considered.
Clearly these are decisions that depend entirely upon the values and opinions of each individual, which is why it is so important that we all have the appropriate information with which to make these decisions.
There is no right answer to the questions mentioned here and no specific course of action that individuals should be taking. It is clear that PPE is contributing to the amount of plastic in our environment, however it may never become clear just how much of an impact this will have on the global issue of single-use plastic pollution.
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2. Resurgence of single-use plastics amid coronavirus crisis has environmentalists worried [Internet]. Cbsnews.com. 2020 [cited 24 November 2020]. Available from: https://www.cbsnews.com/news/coronavirus-single-use-plastics-environmentalists/.
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11. SaveTheReef. ‘URGENT ISSUE WE MUST FIX RIGHT NOW’ Instagram, 16 Oct. 2020, SaveTheReef (@savethereef) • Instagram photos and videos.
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