OUR CITIES - NATURE & ENVIRONMENT

COVID-19: not only a health crisis

By Eva Morales

In recent years we have seen a major leap in solutions to tackle the plastic pollution problem that our environment is facing. Some countries and major cities have banned the use of single-use plastic bags and bottles. NYC recently signed an executive order to ban single use plastic bottles consumption in its 17,000 properties in the city. 

The city has now delayed its plans to a later date. In the UK the environmental secretary has waved the 5p charge on plastic bags to online shoppers. Starbucks banned customers from bringing re-usable coffee mugs in favour of single use to their cafeterias. It seems that all efforts to reduce single use plastic consumption have been put on hold since the COVID-19 pandemic hit humanity with all its force.   

Plastic is not the root of all evil. In fact, right now it is saving lives. The plastic industry has seen an increase of production over the past few months in PPE equipment for hospitals, which is essential to stop the virus from spreading. On the other side of the spectrum, single use plastic bags are now seen as a safer option for shoppers instead of re-usable ones, despite scientific claims that the virus can live on plastic much longer than in any other materials.
This has led some industry groups to lobby for plastic legislation to be revoked, on the basis of spurious research that claims viruses can spread much quicker on reusable bags. Greenpeace has called these groups opportunistic in the face of a global crisis.
It is not plastic that is the problem, it is the excess of consumption, the system around it and the poor waste management process. Most of our plastic today ends up in landfills, rivers and oceans, and, due to mismanagement, is expected to triple in the next decade.
It is reported that the amount of plastic waste from the west that is exported, often burnt or sent to landfills in developing countries is equivalent to putting 2 million cars on the road. Inappropriate plastic recycling releases harmful toxins, dramatically increases CO2 emissions and increases demand of new plastic production. Though plastic saves lives, in poorer countries it is putting people´s health at risk as well as drastically impacting climate change. 
There are well-known solutions to solve the plastic problem. One is directing more investment and research in order to implement a cost effective and efficient recycling system process that avoids polluting our biosphere and our oceans. Businesses need to take more responsibility.
Another solution is to reduce production of plastic from virgin materials, and bring revolutionary solutions, as seen by innovators UBQ materials, converting organic household waste into sustainable bio-based materials, turning waste into plastic. A further solution is to radically decrease unnecessary consumption and to promote the circular economy.
With a focus on the reduction of plastic consumption, there is a need to implement public policy legislations, as well as to increase education and public awareness. A joint effort is required to significantly reduce consumption for which partnerships are key to drive behaviour change in our society.
Together with governments, think tanks and private organisations efficient measures and initiatives can be implemented. One example is the reduction of single-use water bottles consumption, by making it easy to refill and reuse instead of recycling. 
Since the COVID-19 crisis emerged, society has adapted to the new normal, the use of technology for doing business while in lockdown and building social relationships while maintaining social distancing. We have proved that we can rapidly act and adapt at a time of crisis. But we are also facing a climate crisis that cannot be forgotten at this time.
Changing our behaviours can stop, if not reduce, the number of future pandemics and the havoc they wreak. 

Eva Morales is head of Global Partnerships, GLOSCA