COVID-19 is forcing us to rethink our plastic problem

This year was meant to mark an ultimate shift away from plastic. Two years ago, the UN declared plastic pollution as a global crisis. The announcement came more than 30 years since the discovery of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the vortex of micro-plastics two times the size of Texas halfway between California and Hawaii. Countries and cities introduced new bans, while scientists and activists argued for positive environmental changes. Businesses also bet on the end of the plastic era by preparing for an accelerated transition to a circular economy and adjusting their corporate strategies. The coronavirus outbreak, however, has changed the calculus.

Skyrocketing numbers of COVID-19 cases and tremendous pressure on healthcare systems have underscored that plastic is still the most reliable and affordable solution for personal protection. Unless technological advances introduce better alternatives, we will need a systems-level approach from companies and governments on a global scale to address the issue of plastic and protect our environment.

Economic uncertainties and risks of a second wave of COVID-19 might impose significant limitations on waste services. With the pandemic contributing to increased plastic use in healthcare, and large volumes of waste being unfit for recycling due to potential biohazards, medical plastic waste could grow at an unprecedented scale. A similar situation might arise in the food industry and other services that had previously decided to temporally limit reusable. The disrupted waste management and recycling sector would also take some time to recover and would not be able to effectively handle massive volumes of post-pandemic plastic.

We need more complex recycling practices and policies against plastic pollution that take into account extensive networks of transnational ties and interdependencies. In times when the risks posed by a global pandemic have become the new reality, environmental policies cannot be confined to a handful of countries, but must emerge as a universal action plan.

Corporations and governments around the world should allocate more funds to educate people on how the circular economy works and why they should reuse and recycle. We should encourage consumers to think of themselves as responsible for the proper disposal of any product they buy, and for reinserting it back into the economic cycle. Many societies also have to reconsider throwaway culture and become more aware of the associated environmental threats.

Finally, we should encourage the production of polymers with improved recyclable qualities that would make it easier to reinsert used plastics back into our economy. About three years ago, polymers were considered the main contributor to marine plastic pollution. Later, they began to be evaluated as products with a significantly reduced carbon footprint in comparison with other materials. During the pandemic, polymers began to be perceived as a valuable material for the production of disposable plastic packaging and medical personal protective equipment. Such shifts underscore the abilities of corporations to embrace a proactive role in decreasing pollution, while also highlighting critical benefits that industries could deliver to social comfort and safety.

The best way to start is to acknowledge that there is no easy solution to the problem. The development of effective measures against plastic pollution is a complex and long-term process that will require a systems-level approach from companies and governments on a global scale. Sustainability will only be achieved by prioritizing our actions and policies together for the greatest long-term environmental and economic good.


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