The Pandemic & Plastic: How Covid-19 Has Impacted the War on Plastic

As the UK emerged from its second national lockdown last week, Kelly Green investigates the impact that the global Coronavirus pandemic has had on the fight against plastic pollution this year.

Over recent years we’ve witnessed a growing awareness of the impact that single-use plastic pollution is having on our planet – particularly on the health of our seas and waterways. Documentaries like Blue Planet II portrayed in devastating technicolour the way that our escalating plastic consumption is harming marine life, and ultimately how plastic is ending up in our food chains. As outrage grew, so too did the war on plastic from both individuals and businesses, with an influx of zero waste shops, supermarket pledges to reduce plastic packaging, plastic bag levys and incentives for taking your own reusable cup to the local coffee shop and declining disposables.

It seemed that real collective progress was being made in reducing the unnecessary single-use plastic we had grown so accustomed to and making the switch instead to more Earth-friendly reusables. But then came 2020, bringing with it a global Coronavirus pandemic, national lockdowns, and a renewed tidal wave of plastic pollution.  “We were doing well as a nation pre-pandemic, with people using reusables more and recycling better, as a nation we score quite high in how much we recycle,” says Nick Doman, co-founder of reusable bottle company Ocean Bottle, which works with Plastic Bank to fund the collection of ocean-bound plastic. 

“However things took a bit of a turn once the pandemic hit; the use of disposable masks, gloves and PPE obviously skyrocketed the amount of plastic waste. It was an emergency we needed to act on,” he explains. 

Last month, the Marine Conservation Society shared the results of its annual Great British Beach Clean survey – its citizen science project which gives an insight into the most common forms of litter blighting UK shores. This year, having introduced measures to ensure beaches could still be cleaned and surveyed in accordance with social distancing guidelines, the charity also asked volunteers to record face masks and plastic gloves for the first time – and the results show a concerning, but perhaps predictable, presence of PPE litter.

Face masks and gloves were found on almost 30% of beaches cleaned by Marine Conservation Society volunteers over the week-long event. The inland Source to Sea Litter Quest data shows a similarly worrying presence of masks and gloves, with more than two thirds (69%) of litter picks finding PPE items. 

“The amount of PPE our volunteers found on beaches and inland this year is certainly of concern,” says Lizzie Prior, Great British Beach Clean Coordinator at the Marine Conservation Society.Considering mask wearing was only made mandatory in shops in England in late July, little more than three months before the Great British Beach Clean, the sharp increase in PPE litter should be a word of warning for what could be a new form of litter polluting our beaches in the future.”  

Like many other single-use items, disposable face masks and gloves pose a threat to wildlife on land and at sea. Marine animals could mistake face masks and gloves for prey, filling their stomachs with materials that will not break down and could prove to be fatal. Animals also risk being tangled in the straps of face masks, with seabirds’ feet pictured recently being wrapped in the elastic strings. 

With the current global pandemic meaning that single-use PPE is often vital for the protection against Covid-19, how can we ensure that this waste does not end up polluting our oceans? 

“It’s difficult to say that one thing over another is leading to face masks and gloves ending up on our beaches and in the sea, it could simply be a mistake, a mask falling from someone’s pocket when they go to get their keys!” says Prior. “However, the best way to limit this sort of littering is to ensure that, once you’ve worn your mask, you put it somewhere safe and put it in your general waste bin when you get home. If a bin in your local park is full, don’t risk it, just take it home. Cutting the straps of face masks, which have been found tangled round birds’ legs, is another way to limit the impact of PPE litter on our wildlife.”

The sudden requirement for PPE was not the only reason for a resurgence in plastic waste. “Household waste in the UK has increased by 29% in Britain alone [throughout lockdown, according to a survey released by Everyday Plastic], two thirds of which was food and drink packaging,” says Doman.  

The Marine Conservation society also found drinks litter to be one of the biggest culprits in littering British beaches, with an average of 30 drinks containers, caps and lids being found per 100m of beach surveyed this year. Inland, almost all litter picks (99%) found drinks litter. “Despite lockdown, with many of us spending more time at home, littering in public spaces has continued unabated,” says Dr Laura Foster, Head of Clean Seas at the Marine Conservation Society. “Almost every single local litter pick found at least one drinks container, which is incredibly concerning.” 

Wet wipes, cigarette stubs, and plastic string were other common plastic-based litter items recorded. “With home deliveries and takeaways becoming increasingly popular amid restrictions, we’re seeing more businesses relying on single-use plastic containers,” adds Prior.

The banning of reusable cups and containers at the height of the pandemic, as well as other Government measures introduced to slow the spread of the virus, also had a knock-on effect. “We saw cafes and restaurants banning reusable cups, something that actually was quite unnecessary,” says Doman. “In July, 119 experts from across the globe signed a statement, concluding reusable containers posed no threat to the public during the pandemic. It claimed there is no reason cups, bottles and jars cannot be used as long as they are thoroughly washed. Understandably businesses were concerned about the transmission of Covid-19, but it was perhaps shortsighted, and it would be nice to see retailers adopting “contact-free” systems for customers’ reusable bags and cups.

We also saw the UK Government suspend its 5p plastic bag fee – introduced in 2015 – for online supermarket deliveries during the pandemic. This paved the way for a huge amount of plastic bag waste.  Tesco, for instance, said online sales for delivery rose by 48.5% in the three months to 30 May.”

But Doman claims that the biggest driver over the summer was from big energy.  “Oil demand reduced, and the industry needed to find a new way to move through the economy,” he explains. “The price for virgin, or non-recycled, plastic was at an historic low and playing to new trends within society to do with PPE, eating out and at home shopping, producers started pumping out cheap plastic to stoke demand and soak up some of the global glut of cheap oil and gas. The UK brand Perspex increased its acrylic sheet production by 300% from February to March. It’s undeniably been a roadblock to the war on plastic pollution.”

With the global pandemic raging on, and PPE increasingly a part of our everyday lives, how can we regain the momentum in the fight against plastic waste post-lockdown? Doman is hopeful that the global pandemic is going to reframe our views on sustainability, but adds that the Government needs to look at three key areas that have become intrinsic to our new lives: hospitals, takeaways and online shopping. “The Government should support & fund PPE, equipment, containers, knives and forks and so on that are better for the environment. For example, our friends over at A Plastic Planet, in association with sustainable packaging companies Reelbrands and Transcend Packaging, launched the first plastic-free visors for frontline workers and medical staff; made from wood pulp and paper board, they are both recyclable and compostable.

“There are excellent initiatives such as Sterimelt®, already pioneered in primary care in Wales, in which propylene surgical shrink wrap (normally disposed of by incineration) is recycled into its reusable base component by thermal compaction. A similar process could likewise be adopted for other in-hospital plastic waste including aprons, gloves and packaging.”

Another area where Doman thinks we can make a difference is through recycling. “People say recycling isn’t the answer and that the answer is production. At any other time, I would agree, but in a pandemic it’s very difficult to argue against producing more plastic when many people need different types of products, including for medical services,” he says. “Only 9% of all plastic ever produced has been recycled. Ocean Bottle is playing a part in setting up people-powered recycling infrastructure, but we need a multi-faceted approach at home and further afield.” 

To encourage better behaviour on an individual level, Doman cites France’s litter fines as one possible solution to combating face mask and glove pollution, while the Marine Conservation Society wants to see the introduction of a Deposit Return Scheme in England. 

“This year’s Great British Beach Clean data, in addition to the Source to Sea Litter Quest data, shows just how crucial it is that Wales, England and Northern Ireland follow in the footsteps of Scotland and urgently introduce an all-inclusive Deposit Return Scheme,” says Foster.  “An effective Deposit Return Scheme would take the UK one step closer to a circular economy model and drastically reduce the volume of single-use pollution in the UK’s streets, parks and on our beaches.”

Meanwhile, it’s down to us as individuals to make a difference through our everyday choices. “As individuals we are more informed than ever, Covid-19 has made us a fact hunting, science and research loving nation and we should use these new skills to interrogate the businesses we buy from,” says Doman. “Asking about their supply chain, the end life of their products, what they recycle, what mix of recycled materials they use. Never have we had more power and nothing gets us more motivated at Ocean Bottle than when people ask us questions about production, process, or product.”

It’s so important that we not only clear litter from our beaches and outdoor spaces, but that we stop it at source – we must once again turn to reusable containers and have governments commit to Deposit Return Schemes around the UK,” concludes Prior. “The pandemic is an opportunity to reflect on day-today practices and improve, not revert back to the status quo.”