Plastics epidemic: Let's not waste the opportunity to tackle waste

Plastics epidemic: Let's not waste the opportunity to tackle waste
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With coronavirus cases rising in many places around the United States and health officials predicting a second wave to come, there’s no doubt that personal protective equipment (PPE) items like gloves and masks are here to stay.

Globally, the numbers are shocking. Scientists recently estimated that 129 billion face masks and 65 billion gloves have been used around the world every month. Unfortunately, most of these items are single-use and — because they are biohazards, among other reasons — cannot be recycled. So while PPE is absolutely critical to tackling the pandemic, we must address the increased strain that they place on our already overburdened waste management systems if we want to avoid aggravating another crisis: ocean plastic pollution.   

Single-use masks and gloves are made of plastics, meaning these items do not biodegrade over time. As unsightly as single-use PPE litter is on land, it may very well be deadly once in the ocean. We can expect lightweight, synthetic gloves to behave similarly to plastic bags, for example, which easily snag on underwater structures and are often mistaken for jellyfish by foraging sea turtles and other ocean creatures. In fact, research I co-authored with my colleagues at Ocean Conservancy as well as CSIRO suggests that plastic bags are among the top five deadliest forms of marine debris. Meanwhile, masks with elastic bands could pose entanglement hazards to marine life. Scientists have also shown that plastics make coral reefs more vulnerable to disease, among other negative impacts to both our ocean and the communities that depend on it.

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Unfortunately, PPE is not the only pandemic-fueled spike in plastic waste. Despite some of the best available science indicating that coronavirus endures longer on plastics than any other material, many states have — in an abundance of caution — temporarily suspended, rolled back, or postponed efforts to curb single-use plastic bags. At the same time, a surge in takeout and delivery orders has increased consumption of disposable plastic food containers and cutlery. We know from Ocean Conservancy’s International Coastal Cleanup (ICC) data that these items are already the most prevalent types of plastic waste reported on beaches and waterways around the world. In 2018, volunteers removed nearly 2 million plastic forks, knives and spoons and more than 964,000 plastic grocery bags in a single day.

Whether packed in a landfill, littering your neighborhood, or flowing down storm drains out to sea, it’s clear that we — and the rest of the world — will be dealing with gargantuan amounts of pandemic-related waste for a long time. Certainly, when the pandemic has receded and people are free to gather in large numbers, cleanup events like Ocean Conservancy’s ICC can help mitigate some of the damage. Individuals can take steps to help, too. Rather than piling PPE onto an overflowing public trash bin, toss it in a home bin where it won’t spill over or catch a breeze. Skip using straws and opt out of receiving plastic cutlery when ordering takeout or delivery. Also, check with local authorities before tossing clamshells into the blue bin as most are not recyclable and actually contaminate the recycling stream. 

Above all, though, we need swift and meaningful action from our leaders. Local governments, struggling with plunging revenues and increasing volumes of waste — including potentially contaminated PPE — need help. As members of Congress weigh various stimulus bills, they should support the waste sector so that existing recycling programs continue, while reimagining and reinvesting in a more effective, efficient and sustainable waste management system here in the U.S. The Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act, introduced in Congress earlier this year includes some much needed reforms, like bans on certain unnecessary single-use plastics, and extended producer responsibility schemes requiring companies to take financial responsibility for plastic waste resulting from their products or product packaging. Meanwhile, businesses can help reduce plastic waste by manufacturing products and packaging that are not only widely recyclable, but that are made using high percentages of recycled content to further (re)stimulate a market for recyclables. 

As we navigate the ongoing pandemic, we are at a crossroads: continue with business as usual despite colossal upheavals to our plastic waste reality, or take this opportunity to change the plastics paradigm and build better, stronger waste systems. The choice is obvious. 

Nick Mallos is senior director of Ocean Conservancy’s Trash Free Seas® program. Follow him on Twitter @NickMallos.