Plastic boom in times of coronavirus

| Bild: Photo by Cate Bligh - unsplash

The demand for plastic increased due to the pandemic. Whether FFP2 masks, gloves or protective suits – utensils for hospital operations and infection control were and are essential to contain the spread of the virus. Restaurants and stores had to close, customers increasingly relied on take-away meals and online shopping. This, combined with historically low oil prices,[1] led to increased plastic production. Plastic protected many people in the pandemic. Nonetheless, we should not forget our environment. Because what protects us now, harms nature and animals in the long run. Plastic is extremely problematic in both production and disposal. It is produced synthetically and 99 percent of it is based on fossil fuels such as crude oil, natural gas and, less frequently, coal[2]. Only about one percent of plastic is made from renewable resources.[3]

Shortly after the first disposable masks came into widespread use, they were already washing up on beaches around the world.[4] Marine animals, such as dolphins, turtles, and even birds, can mistake floating pieces of plastic for food, clogging their digestive tracts and starving as a result. In addition, toxins from the environment accumulate in plastic over time. Even if the food tract does not become clogged, the animals ingest toxins, harming them and those who follow in the food chain.[5] Estimates suggest that as many as 1.56 billion masks may have entered the oceans by 2020.[6] That’s several thousand tons of plastic waste. Masks that were indispensable at the time they were used, but will now pollute the ecosystem for centuries. This garbage could take up to 450 years to decompose, and by then it will have broken down into tiny components, but still not completely dissolved[7]. More than 100,000 marine mammals die each year from ingesting plastic or becoming entangled in fishing nets.[8] If even 1 percent of masks accidentally ends up in the wild, this amounts to 10 million masks a month, according to WWF estimates.[9]

There needs to be a turnaround on the issue of plastic. The current way of dealing with it is neither compatible with the Paris Climate Agreement, nor is it in keeping with the times. The European Union has recognized this and made various regulations as part of its plastics strategy. By 2030, all plastic packaging is supposed to be recycled or reusable.[10] As of today, some single-use products, such as drinking straws, stirrers, disposable tableware and to-go cups, are banned in the EU.[11] Stocks are still being sold off. Switching to paper packaging or so-called bioplastics, such as those made from sugar cane, is not a sustainable alternative. Paper leads to an increase in deforestation. Sugar cane and other renewable raw materials usually grow in monocultures that are harmful to biodiversity and are not as easily degradable as is easily assumed. The avoidance of disposable articles is to be aimed for. Exceptions are made to the ban.  Wet wipes, cigarette filters and other disposable products are still allowed, but must indicate environmental damage and proper disposal on the product.

Burning plastic waste or, euphemistically, “recycling it for energy,” emits greenhouse gases and irrevocably destroys all the energy and raw materials used to produce it. Plastic items should remain in the economy as long as possible, even after they are no longer usable, and should be returned to value creation again and again.[12] Our current approach to resources and waste must change for this to happen and be transformed into a fully circular economy. Fraunhofer, Sabic and Procter & Gamble have joined forces for a pilot project and developed a process in which disposable masks are kept in a closed-loop recycling system[13]. This means used masks can always be recycled back into the value chain of mask production, eliminating waste. The masks are crushed and thermochemically converted into pyrolysis oil, which is then broken down into molecular fragments under pressure and heat. This step is necessary to destroy residues of contaminants or pathogens, so the new raw material is also approved for medical devices. [14]

The report Dirty Profits 8 – Einweg ohne Ausweg published by Facing Finance in March 2021, shows that financial institutions also have a central role to play in the transformation toward a circular economy, a role that they have unfortunately failed to fulfill yet. As capital providers, they can decide to advance those projects that contribute to a circular, low-waste economy.[15] Governments, too, must actively support and advance the process by encouraging corporations and consumers to avoid plastic. The Dirty Profits 8 Report has extensively addressed plastic pollution and its impact on the environment and people and the English summary is available here.

 

Author: Karina Rudi

[1] https://voxeurop.eu/de/coronavirus-die-plastikpandemie/

[2] Dirty Profits 8, p. 21

[3] Dirty Profits 8, p. 21

[4] https://oceansasia.org/covid-19-facemasks/

[5] https://oceansasia.org/covid-19-facemasks/

[6] https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0301479721002024

[7] https://www.zeit.de/news/2021-03/08/mehr-muell-waehrend-pandemie-vorsicht-bei-masken-entsorgung?utm_referrer=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.google.com%2F

[8] WWF Australien (11.10.2018): „Plastic in our oceans is killing marine mammals.” Abgerufen am 23.12.2020: https://www.wwf.org.au/news/ blogs/plastic-in-our-oceans-is-killing-marinemammals#gs.n2uo1q

[9] WWF Australien (11.10.2018): „Plastic in our oceans is killing marine mammals.” Abgerufen am 23.12.2020: https://www.wwf.org.au/news/ blogs/plastic-in-our-oceans-is-killing-marinemammals#gs.n2uo1q

[10] https://voxeurop.eu/de/coronavirus-die-plastikpandemie/

[11] https://www.bundesregierung.de/breg-de/themen/nachhaltigkeitspolitik/einwegplastik-wird-verboten-1763390

[12] https://www.europarl.europa.eu/news/de/headlines/economy/20151201STO05603/kreislaufwirtschaft-definition-und-vorteile

[13] https://www.k-zeitung.de/kreislaufwirtschaft-fuer-einweg-gesichtsmasken/

[14] https://www.industr.com/de/so-lassen-sich-einweg-masken-recyclen-2613964

[15] Dirty Profits 8, p.85