We’re applauded for the mass production of Covid-19 PPE, tests and vaccines, but have we stopped to think about the mass production — and mass waste — of plastic?
The coronavirus pandemic has brought a number of concerns, predominantly related to the health and safety of this super-spreading virus. We’ve counted cases and deaths and kept a close eye on the R-rate.
However, one concern we haven’t addressed is the plastic pandemic instigated by this virus. Testing, vaccines and almost everything else related to Covid-19 relies on PPE. And PPE — from aprons and gloves to visors — is all made of plastic and, for health and safety reasons, most of it is single-use, meaning the environmental implications are not great.
Plastic waste in test centres
The pandemic has led to mass production and mass waste of plastic in the medical world, including within hospitals and test centres. As a worker at a test centre, I have been shocked and disturbed by the quantity of plastic, from both PPE and the tests themselves, that is disposed of every day.
At work, following general advice, we are told to change our gloves after each person has been tested and dispose of all PPE equipment any time we leave the room, such as for breaks or to use the toilet.
This means that, by my estimates, every shift, we get through between 30 to 50 plastic gloves and at least three plastic aprons and masks per person — not counting the packaging of each individually wrapped antigen test cartridge and the vials and bottles of extraction fluid, which are all made from plastic and come in plastic zip-lock bags. The bins at the end of shifts are always full.
Nurse Natasha Butler affirms that there has always been a lot of plastic used in the medical world, but there has been “even more since Covid”, explaining that “PPE is heavily plastic-based”. She voices her concern and shock about the plastic aprons since “you end up wasting three or four because they’re so cheaply made that they rip when you try and get one off the roll”. This has happened to me too — they’re so thin that they tear really easily.
Ophelia Evans and Michael Hudson, who both work as Covid-19 test assistants at test centres, also discuss this mass waste of plastic. “I think way too much plastic is being used,” says Hudson. Evans explains: “You’ve got two different major sources of plastic waste: the PPE and the plastic from the testing processes.”
Hudson goes on to back up some of the aforementioned examples of plastic used at test centres: “Lateral flow tests are individually wrapped [and] a plastic vial is used for each test, which comes inside plastic zip lock bags. On top of this, you have all the plastic aprons and gloves testers have to wear.”
Experts are also extremely concerned about this drastic increase in single-use plastic due to the pandemic, as well as its implications. Founder and director of environmental solutions company Roadfill Limited Christie Raptaki says the increase in single-use plastic is “staggering and a great concern”.
She continues: “The Office for National Statistics estimates that in England, over 50 million face masks are discarded weekly [and] figures from last June estimated that over 6.88 billion are generated daily worldwide [which are ultimately sent to landfill].” She adds that these statistics are “before the mandatory wearing of face masks was imposed”, so the number of discarded face masks will likely have increased significantly since then.
Concerning the implications of this mass waste of plastic, the founder and publisher of digital divers’ portal Deeper Blue, Stephan Whelan, addresses the threat this has to the planet and particularly the oceans: “The vast majority of plastic waste ends up in oceans.”
He adds: “This is a tragedy on an epic scale. Whales, fish, seabirds, turtles and many other animals are eating the plastic and dying en masse.” Whelan addresses the dangers of this further, referring to current research “exploring the relationship between human health problems and consuming fish that contain microplastics”.
Why using plastic is unavoidable
So, we’ve established that plastic is being overused in the coronavirus world, causing increasing damage to the environment. But would we have made it through a pandemic without this problematic yet propitious p-word?
Hudson and Evans both discuss the fact that this overuse of plastic is unavoidable. “There will be some plastic and waste that cannot be avoided. This is with things like clinical waste and other things that can’t be made out of other materials,” explains Hudson.
Evans agrees, while also addressing the environmental concerns: “It’s difficult, because it’s obviously going to take a massive toll on the environment. But at the same time, it can’t even be recycled because a lot of it is classed as hazardous.”
From a hospital perspective, Butler agrees with this: “Once [plastic] is used, it has to be binned due to infection risk, so recycling wouldn’t be an option.” This goes for PPE too, which is made of single-use plastic — unless it must be reused due to shortages. In this case, it must be cleaned thoroughly, but, as Butler explains: “It is easier and safer to be disposable because cleaning down still poses a risk of contamination.”
She adds that it is “quite hard to minimise plastic usage as sometimes it’s on packaging so we can see what’s inside”. She explains: “If it was all paper, Vegware or bamboo packaging, people would forever be mistaking the equipment, [as] it already gets mis-opened because people think it’s a different piece of equipment.”
Raptaki states that “as a human race, [we] cannot survive in our numbers without plastic”, highlighting how essential it is to daily life, despite being incredibly bad for the environment. But she adds that we aren’t currently doing enough to prevent the use of single-use plastic.
“However,” she says, “given the horrific nature of Covid-19 and the number of lives lost, the use of plastic is justifiable. Due to its versatility and chemical inertness, there are currently no better alternatives in this unprecedented situation.” So, in this case, Raptaki acknowledges that the unprecedented circumstances of this situation outweigh the massive amount of plastic used and discarded, which was unavoidable.
Mitigating the damage
Despite this, there are a number of things that can be done to reduce this in the future. Evans acknowledges that, but also recognises “it’s probably going to take a lot of time and research to switch from single-use to other sustainable materials”. She also considers the fact that when Covid-19 came along, the priority wasn’t “to make the materials sustainable, but [instead] to get them manufactured as quickly as possible”.
While Hudson agrees, he says “there hasn’t been a thought around sustainability and recycling”: “I think moving forward, if this is going to become the norm and the regular thing to do, then more effort should definitely be put into making it sustainable and eco-friendly.”
Raptaki talks about one of Roadfill Limited’s possible solutions: “We have developed a method of recycling and shredding face masks and other PPE materials into a binding agent to repair and relay roads.” The firm is also working “to provide a national rollout of specialised waste bins to place discarded face masks”.
Moreover, Whelan recognises that the “improvement in the management of plastic waste is vital”. He states that this will be the role of governments and NGOs, which Marcus Lima, co-founder of Reduce My Footprint, reaffirms.
But it starts with the general public, according to Whelan. “We all have choices and options when it comes to plastic — choose sensible packaging options.” He explains that plastic is cheap for manufacturers, but “if we as consumers push and make known that we don’t want plastic in our lives, companies will pay attention”.
On the other hand, plastic is sometimes necessary, such as in medical settings. In this case, Whelan says “We need recycling practices and strict policies against plastic pollution.” Lima agrees: “The government must make all plastics recyclable. Or they must ban the use of these single-use plastics.”
Finally, Whelan reiterates that it’s our responsibility as consumers, saying that “every choice we make as consumers adds up and determines whether we can tackle this problem”. Lima continues by expressing the importance of addressing how these plastics are disposed of: “We all must ensure that we recycle as frequently as possible,” he says.
It is clear that the use and waste of plastic is massive in the medical world, particularly as a result of Covid-19. Steps must be taken to find a solution so that our planet stops suffering from our actions.
However, it is essential to also consider the difficulty in finding an appropriate solution and that currently, the use of plastic in this setting is unavoidable, particularly due to the unexpectedness and unprecedented circumstances of Covid-19. Hopefully, in the future, with time and research, the plastic pandemic will be something of the past.