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Earth Today | Concerns over single-use plastics grow with COVID-19

Published:Thursday | August 27, 2020 | 12:17 AM

WITH THE emergence of COVID-19 has come the resurrection of single-use plastics, prompting renewed concern over pollution and calls for the considered management of waste generated by the global response to the pandemic.

“COVID-19 has led to a greater production and consumption of household and personal health-related products that could be single-use and contain valuable resources like plastics, textiles, metals, and electronics,”noted Chris Corbin, programme officer for the pollution and communications subprogrammes with the Ecosystems Division of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

“COVID-19 waste, and any other waste, must be collected and treated adequately to avoid littering or uncontrolled incineration, causing negative impacts to human health, ecosystem quality, biodiversity, including impacts on soil, rivers, coastal lines and in the marine system. For countries in the Caribbean who are so heavily dependent on their natural resources m,anagement of waste is critical,” he said.

According to Corbin, there is no question of the value such products have created as countries do battle with the highly infectious disease that has infected more than 23 million people and claimed more than 800,000 lives to date.

“There is no doubt that single-use plastics, including surgical masks, have been vital in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. Some countries have reported reduction in overall solid waste generated, while others report increases, specifically in plastic waste, not just from masks and gloves, but also, for example, from home deliveries of food. Single-use plastics have been particularly important for front-line health workers and enabling home delivery of basic goods,” the UNEP programme officer said.

“However, the images of medical waste piling up outside hospitals, and used personal protective equipment floating in coastal waters and washing up on the world’s beaches, illustrate yet again that we have a serious challenge to managing the use and disposal of single-use plastics, especially in developing countries and small islands, such as Jamaica,” he added.

Marine scientist Professor Mona Webber is of a similar view.

“The single-use plastic increase is due to several things, one is the health industry. Hospitals and hospital workers have to be protected because the disease is highly contagious, and so the production and use of personal protective equipment is unavoidable. There is no question of compromising the health of our workers. Barriers have to be made and they have to be made out of plastic; and so the increase in that, and the number of layers persons have to have and how often these barriers have to change, is a given,” she said.

However, Webber said members of the public do not, for example, need to use reusable masks, which is important to embrace if countries are to successfully curtain the waste that is generated from single-use items.

“Masks used in the health sector have to be disposable. Masks that have to be used by the general public do not have to be. The protective equipment for our general population can be reusable and we have seen the industry that has sprung up from that. This will reduce the plastic litter,” she said.

Food packaging

“The other aspect is, of course, food packaging and distribution of food. A lot of restaurants have not allow dining in. We are having a lot more takeout. The disposable utensils are on the increase. These do not all have to be plastic. We had started to make (or otherwise use) a lot of cardboard and other biodegradable material. We have to find a way to continue as the demand for food packaging increases. The use of reusable material has to increase,” Webber added.

Corbin recommends planning for the increase in the number of single-use waste.

“Some key issues relate to improving existing waste management structure and ensuring measures are in place to handle the increase, in particular, of medical-related waste which need to be managed as hazardous waste. In the longer term, we need to look at improving legislation and enforcement for waste management and littering, adopting more circular economy approaches, with waste as a resource, and working with industry to reduce production of single-use plastics,” he said.

“Action has to be taken both at the national and regional levels in terms of domestic waste and even the management of waste at a community level. Systems needs to be in place for the proper collection and disposal of both medical and non-healthcare wastes. At the regional and global levels, we need to advocate for changes upstream, which is about engaging private industry as it relates to plastic production,” Corbin said further.