COVID-19: A boomerang for the plastic industry?

• All global efforts to cut down on the use of plastics were put on a halt with the onset of COVID-19.
• According to UNICEF, during Q1 2020, the UN delivered over 6.4 million gloves, 1.8 million surgical masks, and 1 million gowns to countries across the world. Thanks to plastics, countless lives have been saved.
• However, with this augmentation in the use of plastics, the world also has to contend with the consequent rise in biomedical waste, having far reaching effects on human health and ecosystem.
• Mitigating these issues boils down to proper handling and disposal of plastics, which requires proper policies, education and possible incentivisation for end-use sectors and the public at large.

Plastic

Image credit: World Economic Forum

The heat is on, quite literally, and getting more and more intense. Governments across the world have been trying, in their capacities as signatories of the Paris Agreement (2016) to curb greenhouse gas emissions & combat climate change. One such measure that has gained currency ever since the climate conversation started going mainstream, is regulating the use of plastics, since it is regarded as one of the most persistent pollutants on Earth, which has a shelf life of up to 400 years.

A report from UN Environment and WRI (2018) found that at least 127 countries (of 192 reviewed) have adopted some form of legislation to regulate plastic bags as of July 2018. These policies range from absolute bans in the Marshall Islands to progressive phase-outs in Moldova and Uzbekistan to laws in Romania and Vietnam that incentivize the use of reusable bags. Following the suit, last year in his Independence Day speech, India’s PM Narendra Modi outlined the need to phase out its use & China unveiled a major plan to ban single-use plastics across the country. The industry, meanwhile, laments that the backlash against single-use plastics is unfairly extended to the plastic industry at large.

COVID-19 & the burgeoning of SUPs

However, all these global efforts to cut down on the use of plastics had to be put on a halt with the onset of COVID-19. As the virus continues its global trajectory, the demand for PPEs has spiked to unprecedented levels. According to UNICEF, during Q1 2020, the UN delivered over 6.4 million gloves, 1.8 million surgical masks, and 1 million gowns to countries across the world. According to its calibrations, requirements through the end of the year could reach 2.2 billion surgical masks, 1.1 billion gloves, 13 million goggles, and 8.8 million face shields.

What has added to the ubiquity of plastics at these testing times is their versatility and affordability, making them the bedrock of medical equipment and protective gear. In fact, if there are two things that this ongoing health exigency has made clear (or emphatically clear, if you are from the plastics industry), it is that plastics are indispensable and that they’re actually miraculous substances. A United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) report had in fact expressed this point of view in 2018:

“Thanks to plastics, countless lives have been saved in the health sector, the growth of clean energy from wind turbines and solar panels has been greatly facilitated, and safe food storage has been revolutionized.”

Improper waste disposal & BMW pollution

However, this augmentation in the use of plastics also brings with it the consequent rise in biomedical waste. In the COVID-19 epicentre China, the Ministry of Ecology and Environment estimates that hospitals in Wuhan produced more than 240 tons of waste daily at the height of the outbreak, compared with 40 tons during normal times. Similarly, according to the Thailand Environment Institute, plastic waste has risen from 1,500 tons to 6,300 tons per day, owing to soaring home deliveries of food amidst the need for social distancing.

Closer home, according to a report on generation of COVID-19 biomedical waste (BMW) and disposal submitted to the National Green Tribunal (NGT), about 101 metric tonnes per day of COVID-19 related biomedical waste is being generated in India. To put things in perspective, this is in addition to the normal biomedical waste generation of about 609 MT per day. However, the report notes that “Available capacity for incineration of COVID-19 biomedical waste in the country is about 840 metric tons against the total generation of about 710 MT per day (101 + 609). It is estimated that 55% of cumulative incinerator capacity in the country is being utilised”.

Improper treatment of plastic creates a string of problems for the environment. Researchers estimate that the production and incineration of plastic will pump more than 2.8 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere by 2050. Further, studies suggest that at least 8 million tonnes of discarded plastic also enters our oceans each year. Plastic leaves a deadly legacy in these water bodies since it smothers a host of marine animals and habitats and can take hundreds of years to break down.

In addition to these ecological issues, improper disposal of plastic being used by healthcare system is likely to unleash very dangerous challenges to human health. As Sourabh Manuja, Fellow, The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) expounds:

“The impacts of improper disposal of bio medical waste (BMW) can be seen on land, water and even air. This improper disposal can even lead to several diseases like Hepatitis B and D, Dengue, AIDS, Japanese encephalitis, tick fever etc among people. We even fear spread of COVID-19 virus with unmanaged BMW around cities.”

Getting it right!

While banning plastic may gain currency in popular discussions, one cannot ignore that the product is too indispensable for the human race in the present day to be brushed aside in a hurry. Professor Rajagopalan Vasudevan, popularly known as ‘the Plastic Man of India’, opines:

“When it comes to plastic, my slogan is ‘Not to ban but to plan!’ Plastic is the most useful material available for man’s various needs and products. Whatever problems with plastic we are facing today are a result of human mistakes and ignorance. We have been unable to deal properly with plastic waste. So, we have to try and educate people about the do’s and don’ts of plastic waste disposal.”

This is exactly the approach which needs to be followed when it comes to handling plastic waste. Best practices can be inculcated from across the world in this regard. For example, the French government has decided to ensure door-to-door collection of waste as per usual frequency, with sorting instructions to citizens. The US Environment Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has released a ‘temporary policy’ for the industries generating hazardous waste (including the generation of medical waste) in the times of COVID-19. Meanwhile, the Central Pollution Control Board, India, has formulated its own set of guidelines to ensure safe disposal of biomedical waste generated during treatment, diagnosis, and quarantine of patients with COVID-19.

Further, proper information needs to be disseminated to healthcare workers and sanitation workers regarding the correct way to handle and dispose of biomedical waste in a way that has been defined by international health standards. Citizens too need to be sensitized towards segregation and labelling of waste. Governments should also consider introducing financial incentives to change the habits of consumers, retailers and manufacturers, enacting strong policies that push for a more circular model of design and production of plastics. Efforts must also be directed at developing cleaner alternatives to plastic such as cotton masks.

However, at the heart of all these changes, we must remember that plastic is actually a very useful substance, provided it is managed correctly. So, instead of moving to a plastic-less economy, efforts must be directed at adopting a ‘less plastic’ economy.

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