Four Years In: Assessing the COVID-19 Pandemic’s Plastic Pollution

Four years in, we’re assessing the COVID-19 pandemic’s plastic pollution: Since COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic, it has upended our daily routines; disrupted the economy; sadly, cost many people their lives; and generated significant amounts of plastic everywhere.

This summer, health experts are concerned by a new set of COVID-19 variants, nicknamed “FLiRT,” adding to the more than 50 other types of variants we’ve seen since the pandemic was first declared in March 2020. In addition to food and supply shortages, job layoffs, social isolation, and other major challenges, an additional problem—the widespread use of single-use plastic—has grown worse. The demand for personal protective equipment (PPE) and people opting to shop online from home instead of in stores caused a spike in single-use plastic pollution, especially early on in the pandemic. A rise in plastic pollution became an unexpected consequence of the global effort to contain the virus, but has also raised concerns about environmental degradation and the impacts of plastic pollution on human health.

A Single-Use Plastic Surge

In addition to lockdowns and other social distancing measures, personal protective equipment (PPE) requirements for many institutions—such as medical facilities, schools, stores, and workplaces—increased usage of single-use plastics, worsening an already serious problem. As demand for PPE increased, the market was quickly flooded with plastic face shields, gloves, masks, and bottles of hand sanitizer. 

All plastics contain any mixture of more than 16,000 chemicals, at least 4,200 of which are already known to be hazardous to human health and the environment. Plastics also shed microplastic and nanoplastic particles. Plastics most commonly used to make PPE include low-density polyethylene (LDPE), polyurethane (PU), polycarbonate (PC), polypropylene (PP), and polyvinyl chloride (PVC), which is known to be particularly toxic.

When worn as PPE, plastic chemicals and particles have a direct route into the body through the eyes, mouth, and skin. Many of the chemicals in plastics are linked to hormone disruption, which can increase the risk of autoimmune diseases, cancers, fertility and reproductive issues, metabolic problems, and other serious health problems. Plastic particles in the body have been linked to neurodegenerative conditions like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, increased risk of heart attack, stroke, and death, and more.

Pandemic restrictions also increased the demand for takeout dining and online shopping, further driving usage of single-use plastic bags, packaging, and foodware. For example, during the first year of the pandemic, researchers in the Republic of Korea determined that online orders for food went up by 92.5% and for daily necessities by 44.5% in that country alone. Unfortunately, businesses overwhelmingly opted for single-use plastic options over other reusable choices—a boon for the plastics industry, but a bane for human health and the environment.

While production of plastic for some purposes, such as vehicle manufacturing, decreased due to pandemic shutdowns, production of single-use plastics surged. So did pollution: Just a year into the pandemic, researchers determined that at least 8.4 million tons of pandemic-associated plastic pollution had entered the environment, much of it generated as medical waste from hospitals. At least 25,000 tons of this plastic pollution is expected to have directly polluted the ocean. This is on top of the already huge and growing amount of plastic pollution harming the planet every day, much of it already coming from single-use items.

Pandemic Plastic Policy Challenges

Some governments struggled to strike a balance between regulating plastics and reacting quickly to a public health emergency in the immediate onset of the pandemic. Citing sanitary concerns, the governments of India, Italy, Portugal, Senegal, several U.S. States, and Australia modified or delayed taxes and bans on single-use plastics, and Scotland and the Netherlands delayed implementing deposit-return programs. Some places paused existing plastic bag fees or bans, and eased restrictions on specific disposable plastic items. 

Early in the pandemic, experts predicted that these steps backward on plastic policy would ultimately hinder long-term progress to address plastic pollution—and this is precisely what happened. Single-use plastic production has surged in the absence of restrictive measures on its production. Meanwhile, pandemic challenges requiring the waste management industry to enforce social distancing generally reduced capacity for the collection of plastic pollution and other discarded wastes. This led to a rise in illegal dumping in some places, such as Australia, Belgium, Ireland, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom, putting additional strain on the environment and human communities. 

Protect Your Health With Less—Not More—Plastic

With COVID-19 and several other serious illnesses now circulating among the global population, we still need to protect ourselves. But most people can still do so without PPE made of plastic, which we know harms human health. According to health experts, it is safe for the general public to opt for reusable cotton or linen masks, which should be washed after daily use. (This also saves money compared to buying hundreds of single-use masks.) Experts also stress that reusable systems are also safe to use by engaging in basic hygiene practices.

Similarly, experts say most of the general public does not need single-use plastic gloves. When it comes to keeping your hands clean, washing thoroughly with soap and water throughout the day and especially after going out and before eating is highly effective at keeping viruses at bay. If you must use sanitizer, you can cut down on single-use plastic by buying in bulk and refilling the same smaller on-the-go container over and over rather than continuously buying new ones.

In some cases, such as life-saving situations, there are some plastic items that are (for now) less easily replaced with plastic-free materials due to the profusion of plastics produced for medical purposes. However, in many other healthcare situations, single-use plastic items have far healthier replacements that are accessible and affordable. For example, Healthcare Without Harm recommends that hospitals replace single-use plastic gowns with reusable cotton gowns, and suggests packing food and beverages in reusable, plastic-free containers. Such simple swaps can significantly reduce the healthcare sectors’ use of plastic, which is far better for our health.

Take Action

We are living in a “new normal” where we are more aware of the tiny world of viruses, and the outsized impact they can have on our lives. At the same time, we have grown more aware of the dangers of plastic pollution, and how increasing production of plastic poisons people. Instead of further straining our health with toxic plastics, it’s important we make decisions that prioritize the health of people and the planet.

Help us encourage world leaders to support a strong UN Plastics Treaty that recognizes and acts upon the need to significantly curb plastic production, and supports real solutions.

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By Jessica Heiges and Lindsey Hoell

Four months ago, we were launching our reusable container system in downtown San Francisco with an exciting list of companies and restaurants. Our model placed reusable container return bins (we coined them “4th bin”) on every floor of office buildings. Employees were given “Dispatch Goods Memberships,” which granted them access to reusable containers at many local restaurants when ordering take-out, and an easy return bin at the office. It was a thriving circular reuse system.

And then March arrived, as did COVID-19, and our operations came to a screeching halt. As employees were instructed to work-from-home and many restaurant partners closed their doors, we had to adapt quickly. We had always wanted to tackle food delivery, but we didn’t expect to focus on it so soon. Luckily, our team is stacked with passionate superhumans dedicated to solving the waste crisis, and within a month, we were delivering cold, restaurant-prepared meals to our customers, all in reusable containers that we pick up and wash. It’s been exciting to explore this new space, and with single-use plastics increasing 250-300% during COVID, we are adamant that we must solve this packaging problem on a large scale.

As we talk to companies that we’d been working with prior to COVID, we have been receiving a lot of similar questions. We thought we’d share our knowledge and aggregate learnings about how companies are handling returning to work safely and sustainably! 

How to return to work — without all the single-use plastic:

  1. Self-bussing: Create a self-bussing station or reusable return bins for all reusable foodware. 
  2. Dishwashing: If your office doesn’t have a dishwasher, partner with a foodware service provider like DishJoy or DishCraft to get reusable take-out boxes and cups in your office and have those items washed off-site 
  3. Boxed Lunches: If there is a cafeteria, have the food service employees plate meals individually into the reusable take-out boxes for pick-up by employees. Stainless steel lunchboxes are available from ecolunchbox, ReVessel, and U-Konserve. Stagger employee pick-up windows to limit foot traffic to the cafeteria.
  4. Cutlery: Offer a “mess-kit” for employees when entering the building. This could be a clean cup, with cutlery and a napkin, for the employee to use for the day. At the end of the day, the employee can deposit at the self-bussing station or reusable bin. If reusable cutlery is not desirable, offer single-use wooden chopsticks instead of plastic or bioplastic cutlery as the “best” alternative.
  5. Water: Provide additional clean cups/ water bottles for employees and have a contactless refill station (e.g. Elkay).
  6. Foodware: Store reusable foodware in open cabinets (no door), or on the counter.
  7. Coffee & Tea!: Order mason jars of cold brew or chai from Dispatch Goods; enjoy it and we’ll pick up the empty jars on a daily basis. If you have a coffee attendant, have them pour it directly into clean cups and deposit it at the self-bussing station.
  8. Bulk bins of treats/snacks: If there are cafeteria personnel, request that they pre-package treats/snacks in mason jars for pick-up. 
  9. Catering: Cater lunches from Dispatch Goods; receive individual restaurant meals in reusable containers, which we’ll then pick up and wash later that day. 
  10. Take Out: Look out for Ritual.co to soon offer meals and coffee in reusable containers for pick-up orders at restaurants and cafes near your office.  

This is a compilation of the best strategies we’ve uncovered when talking to businesses, so take from it only what you deem safe and applicable! We will be holding a panel to take a deep dive into “returning to work safely and sustainably” at the end of July. If you’d like to be notified of the details of this event, please visit dispatchgoods.com and sign up for the newsletter.

Co-authored by Jessica Heiges, Chief Sustainability Officer, and Lindsey Hoell, CEO of Dispatch Goods

Join our global Coalition.

by Greenpeace International

The health experts  — joined by Greenpeace USA and UPSTREAM, both members of the Break Free From Plastic movement — emphasize that disposable products are not inherently safer than reusables and that reusable systems can be utilized safely during the pandemic by employing basic hygiene.

“Public health must include maintaining the cleanliness of our home, the Earth,” said Dr. Mark Miller, former director of research at the National Institutes of Health’s Fogarty International Center. “The promotion of unnecessary single-use plastics to decrease exposure to the coronavirus negatively impacts the environment, water systems, and potential food supply compared to the safe use of reusable bags, containers, and utensils.”

The statement endorsed by scientists, academics, doctors, and specialists in public health and food packaging safety around the world, notes that household disinfectants have been proven effective at disinfecting hard surfaces, such as reusables. The statement follows several temporary pauses on plastic bans across the world and increased bans on reusables by shops amid COVID-19.

“It’s been shocking to witness the plastic industry take advantage of the pandemic to promote throwaway plastics and scare people away from reusable bags and other items,” said Greenpeace USA Global Project Leader Graham Forbes. “It is crucial for businesses, and governments to know that as they reopen, reusable systems can be deployed safely to protect both our environment and workers and customers. To keep people safe and protect our planet, we should listen to the best available science instead of underhanded marketing from the plastic industry.” 

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the plastic industry has worked to boost profits and demonize reusables. Pauses on plastic bans followed a significant PR push from the plastics industry, using older industry-funded research to claim that reusables are more dangerous than disposables during COVID-19. 

“Over the past few months, there’s been a lot of conflicting information about how the virus is spread, but we now know that surfaces are not the main way we’re exposed,” said Matt Prindiville, CEO of UPSTREAM – a nonprofit sparking innovative solutions to plastic pollution. “Plastic harms our health along the entire supply chain. Fortunately, COVID is easily destroyed by proper washing, so restaurants, grocery stores and other businesses can still serve us using reusable items in ways that protect health without harming the environment.” 

The full statement signed by health experts can be found here.

Via PPC member Greenpeace

Washington, DC – As COVID-19 continues to spread, surrogates of plastics and petrochemical manufacturers have promoted fear of reusable bags in order to help industry sell more plastic. These groups, including the Manhattan Institute and the Competitive Enterprise Institute, are financed by petrochemical refinery companies. They have misrepresented studies that show coronavirus may persist on plastic surfaces longer than other materials.

These front groups are echoing plastic company consultants and industry-funded researchers, whose studies are being re-circulated to suggest that reusable bags risk transmitting disease. This misinformation is already being used to lobby state legislatures to defeat or repeal plastic bag ban legislation and risks further confusion amidst a public health crisis.

In response, Greenpeace USA Oceans Campaign Director John Hocevar said:

“Industry groups have seen this crisis as an opportunity to exploit people’s fears around COVID-19 to push their pro-pollution agendas. Even in the short term, plastic does not inherently make something clean and safe, and we should not confuse corporate public relations with factual medical research. A new study from National Institutes of Health, CDC, UCLA, and Princeton University scientists in The New England Journal of Medicine has indicated that the virus could be stable on plastic surfaces for as long as two to three days.

“The truth is that we don’t have all of the answers to this COVID-19 emergency yet, and for industry to use this as an opportunity to increase profits for the fossil fuel and plastics sectors is dangerous and irresponsible. What we do know is that there is no substitute for strict hygiene. Just because a material is made from single-use plastic does not make it less likely to transmit viral infections during use; in fact, plastic surfaces appear to allow coronaviruses to remain infectious for particularly long periods compared to other materials. As we all continue to practice social distancing in our own homes, our ability to shift away from disposables only becomes more clear. This should be a time for growth and progress, not fearmongering to keep the status quo alive.

“The entire lifecycle of plastic is dangerous — from its extraction to its disposal. People living in communities near refineries face elevated exposure to harmful chemicals and an increased risk of health concerns. Increased plastics and microplastics in our environment may also provide surfaces for contamination with a range of animal and human pathogens, including harmful bacteria, and allow for their wider dissemination.

“The decisions we make for our families in this health crisis should be based on science and the advice of medical professionals, not lobbyists for the fossil fuel and plastics industries. Wherever reusables are an option, it is incumbent upon all of us to do our part to protect one another by washing them thoroughly after every use. And beyond this crisis, companies must do everything possible to ensure that any and all means they use to sell their products are sanitary and protect the health of employees and customers—as well as the environment.”

Join our global Coalition.

As the COVID-19 global pandemic continues to spread, we all are grappling with its impact on our local communities and the world, and we grieve with those who have lost loved ones.

Public health experts advise self-quarantine and, if necessary to go out, to keep six-feet of physical distance from others to help slow down the spread of this disease. This is in an effort to flatten the curve of infection and lessen the impact on our health care systems.

We have seen communities supporting each other in many new and old ways over the past few weeks. We have seen global carbon emissions fall and opportunities to advocate for new systems of care for the health of us all.

Plastic Pollution Coalition will continue advocating for a world free of plastic pollution for the health of animals, humans, waterways, oceans, and the environment. 

We remain unswerving in our work to reduce single-use plastics–specifically for non-medical use that may become a vehicle of virus transmission and cause worsening global plastic pollution.

It’s important to remember that using more single-use plastic disposables during this time increases your exposure to endocrine disrupting chemicals that are toxic to our own health and that of younger generations.

What can you do?

We are all in this together, and we will get through this with each other’s help and care.

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