A year on from the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, the emergence of the first vaccines shines a distant light beyond the end of a challenging time. These extraordinary circumstances have prompted many changes globally, including influencing our use of, and attitudes towards, single-use plastic. With the UK’s Environment Bill going through the legislative process, and NGOs and others today writing to the prime minister to call for targets to tackle plastic pollution within the bill, it is as important as ever to be mindful of our complex relationship with the material.
As a reliable and affordable material for personal protective equipment (PPE), plastic has played an essential role in healthcare systems under immense pressure. As a means of permitting shops and restaurants to continue serving customers, it has likely kept many businesses afloat. But while the crisis has illustrated the essential role of plastic, it has also exposed how easily many countries’ recycling and waste management systems can be overwhelmed by the scale of its rapidly increased use, and how the perception that nature has had a chance to recover during the pandemic was in many ways a misleading one.
Global sales of disposable face masks alone are set to rise from an estimated US$800 million in 2019 to US$166 billion in 2020.
Despite some official advice recommending reusable cloth masks, alongside frequent handwashing, as appropriate precautions for the general public, disposable PPE’s accessibility and relatively low cost has led to single-use masks and gloves littering streets and waterways. Global sales of disposable face masks alone are set to rise from an estimated US$800 million in 2019 to US$166 billion in 2020, and UCL’s Plastic Waste Hub estimates that if everyone in the UK used one single-use mask each day for a year, we would generate a further 66,000 tonnes of unrecyclable plastic waste.