Plastic Protective Equipment (PPE) has been manufactured during this Covid pandemic to meet demand at a rate of multiple millions of items needed every day, and will no doubt increase over the next few years.
This seemed to be the only solution for protective clothing for all health related workers, and it had to be single use.
As with all plastic, it does not biodegrade. We cannot burn it as it gives off poisons like arsenic when incinerated. Unfortunately, the technology has not yet been developed to avoid incineration of this plastic waste, and we have seen many devastating impacts to the oceans as a result of discarded plastic masks.
The Mediterranean Ocean, near the coast of Cannes, France was discovered to be dense with discarded masks. The reefs around the Philippines also full of discarded masks.
The global face mask market currently stood at $75 billion USD in Q1 of 2020 and will continue to rise perhaps by 53% by 2027.
In Wuhan, at the peak of the pandemic, the hospitals were producing more than 240 tons of single-use plastic-based medical waste per day. We can imagine since then what the tonnage must be worldwide by now.
We have a poor record of disposing of plastic safely. The extract below explains:
A plastic bottle takes 450 years to decompose. Some plastics take up to 1,000 years. Yet in Europe, only 32% of plastic is recycled. In some ways, we can feel good about plastic recycling. In the UK we now recycle over 370,000 tonnes of plastic bottles each year, compared to just 13,000 tonnes in 2000. But that’s not the full picture when we realise that we use around 20 times more plastic now than we did just 50 years ago. Indeed, in the UK, we produce around 76 kg of plastic waste per person per year.
This inevitable use of PPE has created a demand for solutions to dispose of medical waste without causing danger to the environment.
In the UK the government advises citizens:
If you need to throw away used face coverings or PPE, such as gloves:
- dispose of them in your ‘black bag’ waste bin at home or at work, or a litter bin if you’re outside
- do not put them in a recycling bin as they cannot be recycled through conventional recycling facilities
- take them home with you if there is no litter bin – do not drop them as litter
In other words, the massive increase in use of single plastic is adding to the contamination of our rivers and seas and consequent destruction of habitats for all all living things.
Sadly, we could have been addressing the harms caused through chemical industrial processes since we first learned how they bio-persist. Instead, we praise and consume the attractive products which have become the global economic imperative leaders.
The University of Petroleum and Energy Studies has found a way to break polypropylene down using pyrolysis. This process uses 300-400 degree temperatures in a chamber without oxygen which converts the plastics into renewable fuels. But this idea has been criticised. Solutions seem to be all about keeping plastics going forever and a day, and we do not have time for that. We have neglected searching for ways to prevent plastic breaking down into nanoplastics.
Yes, plastic is hugely useful, but so is petrol and all products made from it. How can we live without it? I have no idea, but we must be prepared to do so as oil will not be available to us in 50 years.
At the same time, whilst we can, research must be funded at the highest level to negate further harm from petroleum based products, particularly when we are maximising single use plastics during this pandemic. This problem has been staring us in the face for at least the past 60 years, but we chose to ignore it. We always think we know better. “Make hay whilst the sun shines!” Many people have seen the financial benefits of developing plastic applications. It is so pervasive, it fills my home and litters our world.
The pandemic highlights the neglect to the plastic problem. The Planet is now very poorly due to industrialisation. So many poisons are now in the air we all breathe and the water we drink. The nanoplastics are consumed by all living things, they disturb brains of whales making them lose their sense of direction and cause carcinogens to grow in otherwise healthy bodies.
I believe technologists CAN come up with safe disposal machines for PPEs, ensuring the single mask usage disposal is not to landfill (and thus end up in our rivers then oceans).
A major investment is overdue in solutions which remove all plastic in all its forms in our environment and to only replace it with safe biodegradable material. It would have to be made without polymers from petroleum. A tall order, I know.
We have taken the easy route: use petroleum and when it runs out, use recycled plastics to create more plastics, and even create some kind of fuel out of plastic waste to replace petroleum………STOP! We cannot go on like this!
We could set time aside to list ways we might live WITHOUT oil BEFORE it runs out. We could share ideas and test them for soundness. We must not wait for solutions from the chemical giants. They are complacent and focused on their bottom line.
Our young people are not even being asked to imagine life without the items they use daily which have been made through industrialised chemical invention and have generated damaging impacts on all life on earth.
We need new industries to spring up to safely dispose of single use plastics in household as well as commercial plastic waste, without it going to landfill or incineration. It is so tragic to see the additional single plastic waste, resulting from health protective uses, floating in our seas and oceans. I have been saddened to read of hospital medical waste ending up in dangerous incineration..
We are adding to the trauma of disease with this toxic spread of discarded plastics.