“I think we’re shifting our behaviour, I really do”, said Sir David Attenborough, speaking at the BBC’s Natural History Unit in November 2019. Labelling plastic pollution as “vile” and “horrid”, he claimed that “it’s something we are clearly seeing inflicted on the natural world and having a dreadful effect”. He nevertheless offered optimism that growing awareness offered promise for the future.
Speaking on the cusp of the coronavirus pandemic, Sir David could not have known the spike in plastic pollution that was to follow. Studies show that across the pandemic, about 8 million tons of plastic PPE waste have been produced globally, of which over 25,000 tons have entered the oceans. Masks constitute a considerable proportion of this; a report by OceansAsia estimates that 1.56 billion face masks flooded the oceans in 2020. Each of these masks takes over 450 years to break down into microplastics.
The costs of this COVID-driven plastic pollution are wide-ranging and not yet fully understood. Wildlife already bears a considerable brunt of plastic pollution, which is responsible for the deaths of 100,000 marine animals and turtles and over a million seabirds annually. A Dutch report as far back as March 2021 identifies numerous cases of ‘entanglement, entrapment, and ingestion’ of COVID-19 litter. This includes fish found trapped inside latex gloves, a gull found in Essex with swollen limbs after spending two weeks ensnared in a mask, and a robin that died getting tangled with a mask. These cases are only the tip of the iceberg, and the impact of pandemic-related plastic waste on wildlife has not yet been fully realized.
Considerable economic costs also arise. According to the Operations Director of OceanAsia, plastic pollution already costs the global economy 13 billion USD every year, with a particular impact on the tourism and fishing industries. With regions across the world dependent on these industries for their local economies, the new spike of plastic pollution risks accelerating global inequality.
It is a sad truth that a correlation exists between mask-wearing and plastic pollution – according to a Chinese study, 46% of plastic waste caused by COVID-19 comes from Asia, where mask-wearing is highest, followed by Europe at 24%. Does this necessitate a compromise between public health and the desire to reduce plastic pollution? Recent developments suggest it does not have to. A new research partnership between Heriot-Watt University and the Globus Group, a key UK PPE provider, has produced a new method of recycling PPE waste. This method uses thermal heating technology that allows PPE to be converted back into oil that can be used again in the production of PPE. Technology such as this will help to abate the contribution of masks to plastic waste.
While developments such as this are good news, plastic waste is a global issue. As long as countries across the world are denied access to vaccines, high levels of PPE use will continue to be necessary. The drive to make vaccines available globally is therefore vital in the fight against plastic waste.
It is notable that the pandemic’s role in plastic waste has received little mention at a government level. While the recent climate change conference put as one of their COP26 Goals to ‘Adapt to protect communities and natural habitats,’ the pandemic-driven plastic waste spike did not receive the attention it needed. Given that 87% of pandemic-related plastic waste has been generated by hospitals rather than individual use, it is critical that governments and health officials step in to combat PPE waste.
If not, the already widespread images of animals caught and killed by PPE waste will only multiply. It would be a shame for Sir David Attenborough’s optimism to have been misplaced.