With a monthly estimated use of 129 billion face masks and 65 billion gloves globally, the pandemic is resulting in widespread environmental contamination around the world.
The pandemic has made it harder for governments to fix the plastic problem. In Europe, a drop in demand for oil pushed petrochemical prices down, making virgin plastics cheaper, reaching historic lows compared with the price of recycled plastic. In North America, some provinces and states stalled recycling programs because of the risk of COVID-19.
For Justine Ammendolia and Jackie Saturno, the most upsetting thing they see while taking walks in their west-end Toronto neighbourhood are the masks they find beside the garbage.
Ms. Ammendolia and Ms. Saturno are plastic-pollution researchers who run a company called J and J environmental consulting. Since their research plans for the summer were cancelled because of the pandemic, they decided to track the waste they saw and study it for themselves.
“Prior to March of this year, how many people were wearing face masks? Or gloves? Or using disinfectant wipes constantly?” Ms. Ammendolia said. “To see how quickly what goes into our environment is reflective of human activity, really hit home.”
The pandemic has thrust our plastic use beyond previous predictions of a two-fold increase in the amount of debris by 2030. That includes micro and nano-sized plastics.
Using a free, public app called Marine Debris Tracker, Ms. Ammendolia and Ms. Saturno began taking weekly evening walks during the spring days of the pandemic. Using the “open data citizen-scientist movement” tracker, they started gathering litter in May, taking all precautions necessary.
“The whole point is to kind of map out this debris in a way where you can create this landscape of what plastic pollution looks like in your backyard,” Ms. Ammendolia said.
The federal government has said that by the end of 2021 it intends to ban some single-use plastic items. Items such as straws and plastic bags were selected because they end up in nature, are hard to recycle and have readily available alternatives.
“Citizen science helps inform policy, to target policies, to reduce certain single-use plastics. The problem ones,” said Tony Walker, an assistant professor at Dalhousie University’s School for Resource and Environmental Studies. “It also helps educate and raises awareness for individuals like you and I.”
Mr. Walker has been researching plastic pollution for the past 30 years but recently has focused on government policies and strategies to reduce single-use plastics.
He’s also participated in a handful of studies since the pandemic started, including research that outlines the challenges and recommendations for governments amid the increase of plastic use during the pandemic.
One highlight from a paper that Mr. Walker was a part of, called “Rethinking and optimising plastic waste management under COVID-19 pandemic,” is that plastic production should be decoupled from fossil-fuel resources to create a circular economy. Most plastic comes from petrochemicals produced from oil and gas, a circular economy would allow used plastics to be recycled, creating a closed-loop system where little plastic is thrown away.
This might be a hard pill to swallow for governments, especially after Alberta announced plans to significantly expand its plastic and petrochemical industry. Though the province wants to be leaders in recycling, the change is also seen it as another blow to efforts to rebuild its economy.
“If this pandemic would have occurred in five years’ time, I think we would have already made those adaptations and switches to reusable or sustainable alternatives,” Mr. Walker said. “[But] we’re already in the midst of a pandemic, so we went back to our old ways.”
Another recommendation is for a need to better manage waste.
In a journal from Science Magazine, it estimates that 19 to 23 million metric tonnes, or 11 per cent of plastic waste generated globally in 2016 entered aquatic ecosystems. Essentially, “even in the best-case scenario, huge quantities of plastic will still accumulate in the environment.”
“The recycling systems just can’t uphold it,” said Ms. Saturno.
Mr. Walker, Ms. Ammendolia, and Ms. Saturno hope that contamination in the environment can be mitigated by better education around what belongs in the trash.
“That’s one misconception that we’ve noticed from the start is, how do we dispose of it?” said Ms. Saturno. “So some folks say, it’s made out of plastic, so I’m gonna put it in the recycling bin. Or someone might think that it’s made out of paper and will put it in the compost. Both are big no-no’s.”
Masks and disinfectant wipes are examples of this confusion.
“They look like paper. They look like cleaners, but what a lot of folks don’t know is these are all synthetic fibres that are plastic basically,” said Ms. Ammendolia. “When they start to shred up over time, it creates microplastic microfibres.”
Mr. Walker says that reusable masks are a great way to prevent more of their disposable counterparts from ending up in landfills, or directly impacting the wildlife by ending up in the environment.
“Hopefully, we don’t have a pandemic again. But if we do, I think we’ll not be reliant on single-use plastics in the future.”
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