Plastic in pandemic: Genie is out of the bottle again

In the past few weeks, our environment witnessed an immense reduction in the amount of pollution across the globe. The average levels of nitrogen dioxide in air were significantly declined in this period. The water quality in the rivers and canals has improved. The carbon emission has dropped in many regions after following a lesser use of fossil fuels. Instances of wildlife coming out on streets were recorded from multiple cities. Despite these positive impacts, the fight against COVID-19 has also brought several challenges before the environment. One such threat is the rise in the number of plastic and plastic waste. 

While countries managed to achieve social distancing and to conduct tests in large volumes; nevertheless, they neglected ecological considerations in their efforts to eliminate COVID-19. There is a tremendous increase in the use of plastic and other products packed in plastic containers during this pandemic. The personal protective equipment (PPE) that includes gloves, masks, coats, eyewear, and other medical equipment are made up of single-use plastic. Consumers are buying items in disposable plastics from shops and home delivery services. Careless practices related to the disposal of plastic bags, personal protective equipment, and other products are raising concerns for the public health and the environment. 

Problems associated with plastic

Many countries across the world were regulating single-use plastic through some form of policies before the emergence of COVID-19. Some jurisdictions also provided punishment for using single-use plastic bags. However, with the rise of COVID-19, there came a massive demand for PPE to be utilized by doctors, nurses, health workers, staff, authorities, and citizens. PPE helps in avoiding the transmission of the virus from the affected person to the others. Due to the shortage of PPE, health workers are even bound to use plastic sheets, laundry, and garbage bags for their security. Similarly, under the apprehension of contacting viruses from others, consumers tend to prefer single-use plastics bags instead of reusable cloth bags for their shopping purposes. These instances ultimately relaxed the regulation of single-use plastic in many countries and permitted a large-scale production of required plastic products. Eventually, this pandemic has led to the revival of the plastic industry that was shut long before. Unfortunately, all efforts and hard work to ban the use of single-use plastic will go in vain by the end of this pandemic.   

Today, countries are also witnessing a vast number of biomedical wastes arising out of hospitals and specialized care centers. It draws our attention to the capabilities of all nations to recycle plastic waste, especially contaminated with coronavirus. Considering the ongoing lockdown in many countries, recycling and waste services are not working in their full capacity. Consequently, the plastic waste is not getting treated sufficiently. With this limitation, untreated wastes are piling up more frequently in landfills. The present problem also poses a danger for the cleaning workers who are working with those wastes. Any contact with contaminated plastic wastes will also affect them and their surroundings. Another problem persists of mixed wastes at the household level that is not separated adequately. These wastes might consist of infected items that can affect other articles. Moreover, plastic trash that is left over streets or not disposed of correctly will cause clogging of the sewage system and also hamper the water resources. In coastal areas, such unattended plastic wastes can contaminate the water bodies and oceans. 

Today, plastic is frequently used by everyone to prevent contamination from others. There is no alternative material available for producing medical equipment to address COVID-19 cases with similar utility and cost. However, researchers said that coronavirus could stay for a significantly longer duration on plastic. Further, there exists no conclusive proof to claim that single-use plastic bags are safe over reusable bags. A similar level of protection is required while using both plastic and reusable cloth bags. Notably, large scale production of single-use plastics will have a lasting effect much beyond this pandemic. Therefore, though plastic is promoted as a life savior during COVID-19, it is not a viable solution for our future. 

A way forward

Products made out of single-use plastic could be considered as an emergency response against the COVID-19, along with certain restrictions. Manufacturers should be encouraged to come out with an alternative of the single-use plastic at the earliest opportunity. Infection from discarded plastics could be more frequent once the lockdown is lifted. Governments must urgently frame policies to address the adequate management of plastics wastes and also ensure their effective implementation. Such measures should emphasize the separation of wastes before disposal and use of paper bags instead of plastic bags for consumer purposes. Genuine efforts should be made to guarantee the appropriate disposal of infected protective gear to avoid further contamination. Waste workers should be trained in light of the present pandemic to treat wastes safely. They should be provided with essential safety gear while performing their job. People should not throw their plastic waste in the open and, if possible, try to reuse or store those products for some time. Indeed, plastic is a threat to our environment. It should not be allowed to revive as an excuse for the current pandemic. If COVID-19 is an immediate danger, then plastic is a slow poison. Both of them should be regulated and checked simultaneously. Thus, it is our responsibility to take care of our environment along with our fight against COVID-19.

Siddharth Singh
Siddharth Singh
LL.M., Ph.D. Scholar, Faculty of Legal Studies, South Asian University, New Delhi, India