Plastic in COVID-19 Pandemic – Protector or Polluter?

It is true that the entire world is under the threat of novel coronavirus, and the most basic and advisable way to protect oneself is to use hand gloves, face masks, and Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) kits. From doctors to frontline workers to individuals in home, use of these items has seen an exponential rise as they play a vital role in protection. However, under the influence of COVID-19 it is also true that we are heading towards a future which is more plastic.

Environmentalists on the one hand are appreciating the reduction in pollution due to lockdown and rebounding of nature. On the other hand incorrect disposal of single-use plastics is posing a great threat. According to a WWF report, incorrect disposal of even 1% of masks can cost huge to the environment. 

“If even only 1% of the masks were disposed of incorrectly and perhaps dispersed in nature this would result in 10 million masks per month dispersed in the environment. Considering that the weight of each mask is about 4 grams this would lead to the dispersion of over 40 thousand kilograms of plastic in nature: a dangerous scenario that must be defused”

WWF Report

The concern lies in discarded plastic not only clogging drains, but getting it washed away into waterways making it lethal for turtles and fish as they mistakenly feed on them.

Protect Health or Protect the Environment?

Many suggest that plastics in use should be biodegradable, there, making it more environment friendly. For instance latex gloves are biodegradable because its material is extracted from rubber trees, whereas nitrile and vinyl gloves are made from synthetic polymers which are not biodegradable.

But all plastics do not provide the same amount of safety from microbes. There are many health-related items that are made of synthetic polymers that effectively shields humans from infections. The most important material to make surgical masks is a melt-blown polymer, most commonly polypropylene (PP), which is non-biodegradable. Moreover, other fresh, clean plastic items widely used in medical applications for creating a sterile environment, such as pill casings, disposal syringes, catheters, and blood bags which are made up of synthetic polymers such as polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and PP, fall under the same list. 

Not only in the medical sector, but social distancing rules have introduced use of Disposable polyethylene (PE) gloves people stepping outside of their homes. PE is the same polymer used for plastic shopping bags which has already caused worldwide environmental issues. 

The truth is, fear of coronavirus has actually shifted people to more use of plastics. Many governments like ENgland, California and South Australia have lifted bans on single-use plastic to reduce the risk of coronavirus. Though a recently published report in The New England Journal of Medicine suggests that coronavirus might actually persist longer on plastics than other materials, the reduction in its usage is unlikely to be seen until we find a vaccine.

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