The Coronavirus pandemic: another wave of plastic pollution

Coronavirus disease covid 19 pandemic outbreak, article on medical waste pollution

The coronavirus pandemic has been paired with an explosion of discarded masks and plastics on our streets and beaches. Globally businesses are using the pandemic to revert to using massive amounts of single-use plastic under the guise of public safety. Well-meaning measures introduced to help businesses during the lockdown are now undermining the battle against plastic pollution.

Single use face mask held by strap

After the initial lockdown was lifted, we've witnessed a new wave of plastic pollution littering our planet in the form of disposable masks and gloves. PPE has helped to save lives but the need for effective disposal and litter prevention is urgent.

Many have almost gotten used to seeing plastic bottles, bags and packets littered across the streets to the point where they barely notice them. Now 2020 has added a new type of common plastic pollution to the local environment– medical waste. The pandemic isn’t something that was expected or planned for, even though there were many warning signs, but before the pandemic these items were largely limited to the medical industry and weren't really in circulation among the public.

Litter from single use face mask PPE from coronavirus aka covid19 pandemic

Disposable masks kill the wildlife who try to eat them or otherwise become entangled. They can’t be recycled, and they aren't going to decompose so the only option is to bin them where they break apart, releasing plastic fibres which pollute water sources as they degrade introducing another source of microplastics into the ecosystem and the global food chain.

The public could be wearing facial coverings for several years and currently millions of single-use masks are being dumped outdoors, blighting towns and the countryside.

Outside of essential clinical settings, there are plenty of reusable environmentally friendly alternatives for regular people to use. The single-use surgical masks have already caused enormous plastic waste and the use of environmentally friendly reusable face masks needs to be widely communicated and promoted.

mother puts reusable custom face mask on son

While current political incompetence has rolled back progress that environmentalists have made in tackling the crisis of plastic pollution, the longer-term future PPE-use strategy must see the bigger picture and consider environmental concerns.

We Must:

  1. Stop the use of single use masks becoming further normalised.
  2. Encourage cutting the straps on disposable masks when throwing them away to prevent animal entanglement.
  3. Prevent masks being dropped them masks as litter.