For many people over the last few months and amidst the whirlwind of Covid-19, environmental issues have taken a backseat with health and hygiene understandably becoming a priority. At the beginning of 2020, Greta Thunberg and the rise of the youth climate movement was prevalent in the news, inspiring thousands of students across the globe to march on strike in an attempt to push governments to take our climate emergency more seriously. Over the last 12 months we have read about wildfires in the Amazon – which saw the devastation of nearly 3800 square miles in July 2019 – and in Australia – which saw one of the worst bush fire seasons on record. For the last few months, however, mainstream news has been taken over by the singular topic of the coronavirus, and with many environmentalists claiming that the environmental crisis is just as important as the pandemic, this lack of coverage is a huge setback after a year of hard-earned progress in the climate movement.
The Covid-19 pandemic has seen a huge increase in single use plastics across the globe. With disposed single use masks, latex gloves, and bottles of hand sanitizer being dubbed ‘Covid waste’, the worry that this wave in single use plastics will result in a surge of ocean pollution is already becoming a reality. Divers in France, Hong Kong, and other locations throughout the world have already found this waste washing up on beaches, floating in the ocean, and trailing along the ocean floor with all the other single use plastics that haven’t been properly managed. This is even more worrying when you look at the figures: single use face masks have a lifetime of about 450 years. UCL’s Plastic Waste innovation Hub worked out that “If every person in the UK used one single-use face mask each day for a year, it would create 66,000 tonnes of contaminated plastic waste – ten times more climate change impact than using reusable masks.”
The most frustrating part of this plastic problem is that a huge percentage of it is avoidable. Whilst governments have recommended – and in some cases insisted – that face masks be worn, single use latex gloves can actually do more harm than good. Covid-19 is transmitted through mucus membranes (i.e. eyes, nose, mouth), and cannot be caught through the skin. The virus can linger both on your skin, and on latex, so unless wearing the gloves stops you from touching your face, there is little use for them. I watched a video by a Dr. Samir Gupta for some insight into single use gloves. He explained that wearing gloves can give a false sense of security, and that you are more likely to accidentally touch a surface and then your face, and less likely to wash your hands after removing the gloves. Given that the average person touches their face about 20 times an hour, being aware of what you touch when in public, and then washing your hands properly is surely a much better method of hygiene than wearing single use gloves.
The worrying truth is that Covid-19 has slowed down the move away from single use plastics that the environmental movement has been pushing for years. In April 2020, government Environmental Protection Regulations were meant to be put into action, banning the use of plastic straws, cotton buds and stirrers, however this was delayed to reduce further possible burden on industries, and has remained uncovered by popular media. The UK government seems to be using the pandemic as an excuse to ignore the other global crisis that is staring us in the face, and they are not the only ones. Businesses too are backtracking when it comes to reusable containers instead of singleuse alternatives. Restaurants open for takeaway only are using disposable cups and cutlery, and are not accepting customers’ reusable containers. Coffee chains – starting with Starbucks – are refusing ‘keep cups’ on the basis of hygiene, despite a statement endorsed by over 100 health experts (including virologists and doctors) claiming that “Reusable products are safe to use even during the coronavirus pandemic as long as basic hygiene practices are employed. Single-use plastic is not inherently safer than reusable products as the virus can remain infectious on both surfaces for varying time.”
So, what can you do? The smallest, simplest things you can do as an individual to cut down on ‘Covid waste’ are to use a washable fabric mask, and to replace single use latex gloves with good hand washing practice. Over the course of the lockdown, more and more online shops have begun selling reusable masks. If you are looking for an option that is local, ethical, and affordable, then make your way to the FFSP shop, a small start-up created by four London-based teens that sells up-cycled masks (made from 100% cotton leftover fabrics and off cuts) in packs of two or three, that work out at £5 each (plus 10% of their profits go to Young Minds Charity). Alternatively, if you or someone you know has a sewing machine and a couple hours on your hands, there are many patterns available on the internet for making your own reusable facemasks.