Life Without Plastic: A Simple Pursuit?

Our habits have aggravated an issue that now threatens our health, the existence of several species, and environmental welfare. Due to the ongoing pandemic, the priorities to alleviate plastic pollution have been compromised.

Reading Time: 4 minutes

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By Emily Young-Squire

Modern society has grown to rely heavily on plastic, resulting in one of the most pressing environmental issues: plastic pollution. In fact, we dump approximately a garbage truck’s worth of plastic into the oceans every minute. Plastic pollution has been disastrous for life and the environment, including the oceans and marine life. Though people have recognized the severity of plastic pollution and acted to mitigate the issue, the COVID-19 pandemic only further exacerbated the problem.

Plastic never fully decomposes; instead, the material breaks down into smaller pieces called microplastics over the span of thousands of years. Marine animals often ingest it or get entangled, causing thousands of injuries and deaths annually. In fact, the ingestion has grown so severe that the average seafood lover may be consuming up to 11,000 plastic fragments each year. Plastics also contain chemicals that cause severe health problems, such as cancer and impaired immunity.

Over the past year, our priorities have shifted to containing and slowing down the transmission of the coronavirus. There is frequent disinfection and distribution of personal protective equipment (PPE), such as face masks and gloves. Though these measures helped control the virus, they also aggravated plastic pollution. Single-use face masks contain polypropylene, a plastic that protects against respiratory droplets. However, many organizations have reported large quantities of masks, hand sanitizer bottles, and gloves littering beaches, streets, and the Mediterranean Sea. Global consumption and waste of disposable face masks and gloves are postulated to reach over 129 billion masks and 65 billion gloves by the end of the pandemic. The pandemic has exposed our dangerous reliance on disposable equipment.

In response, scientists are encouraging the use of reusable face masks and PPE made from biodegradable materials. Not only does it help subdue the plastic crisis, but it also provides economic benefits and further protection against the virus. In a simulation conducted by a supercomputer in Japan, a tight-fitting reusable mask offered 89 percent protection as when used in combination with a disposable mask, as opposed to surgical masks, which offered 85 percent protection. Additionally, plastic PPE usage has led to shortages, leaving an inadequate supply for healthcare workers and forcing health-care workers to reuse N95 masks for weeks. However, a paper published by Oxford University Press presented a low-cost modified N95 mask, which contained a coating that, unlike traditional N95 masks, remained effective after disinfection, which could limit plastic pollution while aiding the fight against the pandemic.

However, plastic remains the practical option in several applications as it is cheap to produce. COVID-19 led to a plunge in the oil market, and since oil is used to produce plastic, plastic can be inexpensive compared to its alternatives. Furthermore, businesses rely on plastics to survive the economic hardships caused by the pandemic. Groceries packed in plastic bags and disposable utensils and plates paired with takeout have taken precedence over environmentally friendly alternatives, furthering the waste.

Additionally, COVID-19 has disrupted several recycling programs. Before the pandemic hit, only 10 percent of plastic was recycled. However, COVID-induced budget cuts shut down many recycling programs, and only five out of 17 facilities still operate during the pandemic. Many recycling centers have also closed to the public out of concern for their staff’s safety, causing plastic to accumulate in homes, be littered on the streets, and travel to already saturated landfills.

While going fully plastic-free may be difficult for many, taking steps to use less plastic would reap innumerable benefits. Lowering the disposable plastic consumption reduces its demand, and in turn, its production. This in turn reduces fossil fuel production and the need to recycle, which further benefits the environment since recycling processes still emit pollutants. Reduced plastic use also lowers our susceptibility to plastic toxicity in our bodies and the oceans.

In response to the rising waste problem, Los Angeles has taken the initiative to reduce its distribution of single-use plastics—the primary contributor to plastic pollution. A study conducted by researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) suggested that one in every five pieces of trash nationwide was a single-use plastic item. Targeting cutlery will hence help to reduce plastic waste. To replace plastic cutlery, the UCLA report recommended compostables, which, in the LA market, are cheaper than plastic and more than ideal to assuage plastic pollution.

The enterprise to achieve a world without plastic has translated to several global projects. Plastic Free July, launched in Australia in 2011, challenges its participants to go plastic-free the entirety of July. It has persisted for over nine years with the aim to rid the world of plastic waste. In Egypt, the VeryNile initiative has worked since 2018 to rid the Nile River of plastic waste through campaigns raising awareness about the risks of plastic pollution. Many areas, including New York, have also enforced statewide bans on single-use plastic bags. Others have pledged to limit and ban establishments’ provision of plastic bags.

While battling the pandemic should not compromise our concern over the plastic crisis, it has forced us to make a choice. As a result, we have magnified a tribulation of our planet in hopes of saving lives and suppressing the coronavirus. Nevertheless, efforts such as new sustainable mask designs offer new options that do not undermine these priorities. As the pandemic further exposes the gravity of the waste problem, many authorities are taking action to reduce pollution. Despite our growing dependence on plastic, life without plastic, while being a massive undertaking, can be quite simple while providing profound benefits. The environment has continually taken care of us, and it is time we take care of it.