Plastic Waste Management during Covid19
One unintended consequence of Covid-19 has been the increased plastic pollution. The use of plastic in medical and protective equipment such as single use gloves, masks and aprons, PPE suits has increased manifold during the Pandemic. Also, the generation of waste plastic in the form of discarded bottles after using sanitizer, is huge. Further, the demand of plastic packaging of goods sold in retail has also increased.
Before the onset of Covid-19, a war had been declared at global level to cut down and finally eliminate the use of single-use plastics. In a sense, the Pandemic has halted this war against single-use plastics and has normalised the use of plastics for protection against the virus. In fact, there is an apprehension that Covid-19 will reverse the momentum of year’s long global war to cut down on single-use plastic. The trend is unmistakable in the cities of all the countries. From cities in the USA to Asian cities, there is an increase in the use of plastics during the pandemic. The World Bank has stated that Covid-19, at least for now “seems to be shifting the tide towards single- use plastics”. WHO estimates that every month the world needs 89 million plastic medical masks, 76 million plastic examination masks and 1.6 million plastic protective goggles.
Cities are also struggling to handle a surge of infectious medical waste from hospitals and health facilities treating corona virus patients. Thailand which had banned disposable plastic bags in January and planned to slash plastic waste in 2020, now expects to see it rise by as much as 30 percent. Bangkok alone consumed 62 % more plastic in April than it did 12months earlier .During an eight-week lockdown, Singapore generated an additional 1470 tons of plastic waste from take-out packaging and food delivery alone , according to a survey. Manila , a city of 14 million , is generating an additional 309 tons of medical waste daily – including disposable plastic gowns, masks and surgical gloves – but few cities have the capacity to deal with the excess.
In India, state governments in Delhi, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and many others are relaxing restrictions to ban plastic with fewer than 50 microns. The Kerala government has procured plastic material in large quantities to aid in covid19 relief work and distribution of free food through a large number of community kitchens. Delhi government’s plans to go single-use plastic free have been pushed back .This is being done though there is no evidence to prove that gloves and masks made from single-use plastics are safer than those made from cloth or paper. Earlier, under the pressure from the plastic industry ,the Plastic Waste Management Rules 2016 were amended and led to the Plastic Waste Management Amendment Rules, 2018.The strict provisions regarding carry bags and phasing out non-recyclable and multi- layered plastics were diluted.
Worldwide, studies suggest that less than 10 % of the plastic ever produced has been recycled. The Central Pollution Control Board of India estimates that only 60 percent of the plastics we consume gets recycled. The non-recycled plastics are either dumped in a terrestrial or aquatic environment or are openly burnt across the country ,posing grave environmental challenges . Most of the cities in the world, in the absence of well-designed recycling systems, rely on informal networks of waste pickers to collect and sort trash. During Covid-19, millions of these workers have been barred from doing their jobs during lockdowns, fuelling economic distress .As a result , more plastic is routed to landfills and incinerators in stead of going for recycling. This is also true about the cities in India.
One important impact of Covid-19 is in economic sphere. Due to lockdowns at global level, international travel and industrial activity came to a virtual standstill, and this caused oil demand and prices to go down. This resulted in the drop of cost of plastic production, making it cheaper to manufacture new plastic products. Economically ,this has made the use of recycled plastic material unattractive. With the demand for recycled plastic material going low, the recycling industry has been left with fewer buyers. This lower demand is cutting into the profit margins of recycling companies . Lower revenue is likely to delay investments in new recycling plants and technologies. Due to slackening of efforts to eliminate plastic waste , businesses are likely to revert to using virgin plastics , with little incentive to opt for more expensive recycled plastic materials. In the developed countries like the USA , UK and other European countries , with more plastic waste being treated domestically due to reduced demand for plastic waste in foreign markets(like China), recycling companies could be overwhelmed with waste they have little financial incentive to process.
However , the situation is different in Asian countries. As the virus continues to surge across parts of the world , some see an opportunity to invest in reusable materials, especially in developing countries like India , China , and Indonesia. Recently, a Singapore-based investment fund(Circulate Capital) , announced that the fund would spend $ 6 million to boost two small-scale plastic recyclers in India and Indonesia. According to the fund managers, “waste and recycling have been under-invested in for 20 years. Now is an opportunity to start”
Covid-19 has brought the issue of plastic pollution into high relief . The world is at the junction of two diverging paths. One is a track toward a stop gap method to fight Covid-19 in which there is an increased use of plastics in near future and there is more plastic in the ocean than fish. The other is a sustainable model of living and working that will benefit us long into the future and that requires a control on the use and disposal of plastics. We should all ,as consumers, think of ways to reduce this problem of plastic pollution. Some of the things that we can do as consumers ( as recommended by World Economic Forum) are: Shopping with refill models – which not only supports small businesses but also significantly reduces plastic usage; Supporting informal sector waste pickers by making a donation; Using reusable shopping bags and advocating for local governments to reconsider lifting restrictions on single-use plastics; Responsibly discarding disposable products like masks and gloves through formal waste collection systems ,rather than littering or leaving them in public places; Advocating for businesses to uphold commitments to reduce plastic waste , and encouraging them not to lose sight of longer –term sustainability targets and Embracing and helping popularize the principle of Reduce, Reuse and Recycle of plastics —which keeps plastic waste out of our waterways , our oceans and our environment .
Only this course of action can save the world from a severe plastic pollution in the post Covid-19 world.