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COVID-19 and Waste

It's a hidden problem.

Covid-19 has exposed old problems and fault-lines in societies across the world, but it has also introduced new issues, even in the measures to fight it.

Attempting to protect our communities and our loved ones, we rightly adopted practices to help stop the spread of the virus – wearing masks and gloves, using hand sanitiser regularly, and moving away from reusable materials.

What is the problem?

Whilst necessary to fight Covid, these new measures and changes of behaviour have had a disastrous impact on our environment.

In a report from July, Opération Mer Propre, a French environmental group which monitors the ocean, described a “new kind of pollution” of medical waste and PPE that was entirely without precedent. Over 129bn masks are used and disposed of each month, with the total usage on track to cover the entire land area of Switzerland by the end of the year (Scientific American, August 2020). Each of these facemasks can take as long as 450 years to decompose.

Meanwhile, historically low oil prices (famously going “negative” for the first time in history in April 2020) following a plummet in demand have meant good news for emissions observers, this downturn has also meant plastic is incredibly cheap to produce – with recycled plastic now more expensive than “virgin plastic” (EcoBusiness, April 2020). Many producers are now purchasing new plastic, made with cheap oil, rather than recycled materials from the “circular economy”. More of the plastic we consume and dispose of will be newly made, adding to the excess of waste.

Finally, we’ve all relied upon a regular coffee hit to keep us going during the long lockdown months. Although reusable coffee cups had enjoyed several years of steady growth prior to the pandemic, a ban on using them at many cafes has produced a surge in the number of coffee cups being thrown in landfill.

Even prior to the Covid-19 outbreak, only 1-in-400 coffee cups in the UK were recycled, with the typical cup requiring 0.58 litres of water to produce and possessing a carbon footprint equivalent of up to 60.9 grams of carbon dioxide (The Guardian, April 2020). As it stands, the UK is on track to bin over 2.5bn coffee cups per year, and the WWF has predicted this will rise by a third again by 2030. As dining or “drinking in” is often not permitted under lockdown regulations, coffees that were previously enjoyed in a washable and reusable mug are now being “converted” into takeaway cups that go into landfill.

Why does this matter?

Invariably, a lot of plastic waste ends up in the ocean. Here, turtles, fish and sea mammals often mistake the waste for prey, with deadly consequences. There is a human cost here too – whilst populations in richer countries might enjoy a fish dinner from time to time, in many poorer parts of the world, fish remains a vital protein source, so stock depletion and contamination can have serious repercussions for these communities. The relationship between microplastics in food sources and drinking water and human health remains an area of urgent study, with the World Health Organisation sounding the alarm (WHO, November 2019).

With each new product produced, be it a coffee cup or a facemask, emissions are created which worsen the climate emergency. These emissions will have consequences for every single one of us. Although bans on international air travel have made for a dip in greenhouse gases being produced, we cannot allow Covid-related materials to make up the gap.

What can we do?

Of course, the emphasis has been on coming together to control and defeat the virus, and rightly so. In current circumstances, a zero waste lifestyle might not be feasible, but we can all make positive changes to ensure we reduce our footprint as much as possible, whenever possible. Even a small shift in behaviour and attitude benefits us all.

These changes are simpler than you might think, and the now-u app empowers you to take many positive actions. It could be as easy as educating yourself about a zero waste lifestyle, looking up your carbon footprint with the WWF website, or switching to reusable face masks (many of which are about as effective as disposables). During restrictions, you might want to seek out a café you know which uses biodegradable or recyclable cups.

With vaccines on the horizon, it appears like the end of the pandemic is in sight. New priorities will emerge, and it is important we do not go back to “business as usual”, but redouble our efforts to reduce waste wherever we can.

In a recent blog, Forge Recycle posed the question “Can the Zero Waste Movement Survive the Coronavirus Pandemic?” It is up to us as a community to ensure it does. Check out the now-u app and our website to get more information and take action!

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Seamus May

A recent PhD graduate and full time spirits copywriter. Lover of great writing. Erstwhile bartender. Now based in Sydney and volunteering as a writer at now-u!

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