The plastic pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic and the countless response measures introduced by governments all over the world will have significant long-term effects on the structure of the global economy, and in turn, environmental pressures. Experts are going so far as to say some impacts might even be permanent, which a slow recovery plan can further double. While the good news is energy emissions appear to have decreased, we were all particularly reliant on single-use plastics in the early days of the pandemic, mainly face-masks and surgical gloves, which meant more plastic products had to be produced and exported. 

Recent findings by the OECD show how the pandemics’ impact on our environment might be a result of the sharp decline in energy use over 2020 (up to 8%), which was in turn followed by a gradual recovery of up to 3% in pre-COVID standards. These, of course, include greenhouse gas emissions and fossil fuel materials use. Emissions such as black or organic carbon, linked to transport, also declined during various lockdowns around the world, as did metals used in industrial activities. 

According to initial evaluation from the International Energy Agency, the global demand in 2020 fell by 6%, meaning the contractions in Europe’s Gross Domestic Product and its energy use might be the push the EU needs in achieving its 20% renewable energy target, and its aim to better energy efficiency. This does not mean it will now be even simpler for Europe to achieve climate neutrality by 2050, as this would need a faster transition of the bloc’s energy and mobility systems. 

Naturally, one of the most notable short-term effects of the pandemic’s various lockdowns has been the improvement in air quality, even in big cities. New research also shows how weekly emissions of nitrogen dioxide (mainly emitted by vehicles) fell sharply across all EU member states as soon as the first lockdowns were put in place at the beginning of 2020. The largest reductions were seen in major cities thus far reaches 70%. 

nitrogen dioxide fell sharply across all EU member states as soon as the first lockdowns were put in place at the beginning of 2020.

Perhaps the biggest environmental glitch is the significant increase in the production and consumption of plastics and plastic waste. Since the early days of the pandemic, we have experienced a very sudden surge in the global demand for surgical masks, gloves, gowns, bottled hand sanitiser and PPEs for Health Professionals. The World Health Organization had estimated during this time that each month, around 89 million medical masks were required globally, along with 76 million globes and over a million new sets of goggles. 

The unfortunate truth is, single-use plastics helped reduce the spread of COVID-19, it will certainly diminish EU-wide efforts to stop plastic pollution and consumption, particularly when it comes to single-use plastics which many argue are still too available even now. 

With lockdowns came reduced economic activity, which in turn has also contributed to sharp drops in global oil prices. This made it easier (and cheaper) for large manufacturers to produce plastic goods from fossil-based material rather than recycled plastic. 

The European Member States have chosen different strategies to manage the surge in plastic waste throughout the pandemic, mainly through educating citizens on the best ways to dispose of masks or gloves, despite around two million people in France alone have admitted to disposing of surgical masks in public. Now, face masks and surgical gloves have been added as items to look out for in marine cleanups across Europe. The European Environment Agency states that around 170,000 extra tonnes of face masks are imported daily to the EU. 

Because restaurants across the world had closed for diners, many unfortunately turned to single-use plastics to be able to offer take-aways and delivery services. Fears of spreading the virus also ‘forced’ coffee retailers to refuse reusable cups during serving, instead always offering paper cups to customers. 

Going forward, the European Environment Agency is suggesting further research on the use of specific plastic products. During the early days of any health crisis, emphasis is put on researching the best medical equipment to ensure public safety, along with protective aspects. As the world now enters a different, more advanced stage of the pandemic, we now have the means to look into the environmental impact of Coronavirus.

Hopefully, we will not end up having to battle the plastic pandemic when this ends.  

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