A few days ago, the European Environment Agency’s (EEA) European Topic Centre on Waste and Materials in a Green Economy has published a report on the Impact of COVID-19 on single-use plastics and the environment in Europe. This report uncovers some terrifying numbers, captured within the European Union (EU) in the past year and related to the consumption of single-use plastics during pandemics.
Single-use plastic, environment and climate
Throughout the pandemic, we have been increasingly consuming single-use plastics. This type of plastics is present in resource extraction, production, transport, waste handling and littering. Importantly, mentioned practices in themselves often include unsustainable solutions. For this reason, the overall lifecycle of single-use plastics is of negative impact on both our climate and environment.
In terms of climate, we have notably increased the amount of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions released into the atmosphere, that are related to the manufacture, transport and waste treatment of single-use face masks. Normally, it would range between 14 to 33.5 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) per tonne of masks. Throughout the pandemic and to this date, they would increase by 118 %.
Besides climate, environment is also struggling to process the volumes of waste related to single-use plastics. Fish and birds continue to ingest soft and flexible plastics. Furthermore, discarded face masks and gloves likewise result in microplastic pollution. This type of pollution, in turn, is of same significant impact on both environment and climate.
Fluctuations of plastic packaging during pandemic
The consumption of certain single-use plastic products has been both declining and increasing in the past year. Due to the slowdown in our economies, we experienced a rapid decline in the domestic production of plastic packaging. Moreover, general lockdowns all across Europe have also reduced overall sales of on-the-go snacks, reducing the need for plastic for that purpose.
Nevertheless, during the lockdown the restaurants shifted to take-away and deliveries. This, as a result, has increased again the use of single-use plastic food containers.
Additionally, the increase in e-commerce during lockdowns has also contributed to the increased volume of plastics used in e-commerce packaging in the EU. Deutsche Post (DHL) alone reported that the parcel delivery services have been used at a record level in 2020, with an increase of almost 15 % compared to the previous year. Such numbers, in turn, corresponded to a total of around 1.8 billion parcels.
And to complement on this topic by adding other shocking numbers – did you know that the international healthcare organisations never recommended that the general public use gloves as a preventive COVID-19 measure? Nevertheless, the imports of plastic gloves to the EU member states totalled 105 000 tonnes in the period between April and September last year. Overall, there has been an 80% increase in the consumption of such gloves across the EU states to this date.
All the single-use plastic products that we are significantly consuming during the pandemics are primarily focused on their hygienic/protective aspects. This, of course, is understandable. But once the protective performance is evaluated, it is important to focus on the environmental and climate impacts. To avoid the mentioned impacts in the future, the EEA therefore suggested to improve the EU capacities in the following four aspects:
To assess and reduce the potential negative impacts of future responses, the research has to be launched on numerous topics. Among them, there should be: alternative materials and product designs; environmental impact of litter in public spaces and nature; strategies to encourage desirable consumer behaviour related to use, sanitation, collection, safe disposal and the prevention of littering, etc.
Noting on the latter point, the EEA report also advised that the change in consumer’s behaviour is crucial to tackling similar disasters in the future. The survey undertaken in July 2020 has shown that 5 % of people in France (i.e. over 2 million) admitted throwing away their masks on public roads. To minimise the chance of littered masks and gloves on streets, in rivers, on beaches, along coasts and in the sea, certain strategies to encourage desirable consumer behaviour need to be urgently launched.
We need more accurate data related to single-use plastics to facilitate research and guide future policy options. Here, it is essential to focus on the specific up-to-date data collection on production, consumption and trade of such products. Even for this EEA report, collecting the important data to draw some estimates has been a rather challenging task.
Once the monitoring is improved, we need to develop certain policies to address environmental and climate impacts of single-use products. Here, it would be crucial to support the Europe-wide awareness raising and incentives to change behaviour; also, regulation of circular business models should likewise help.
This sector of governance should be likewise implementing circular models at a more proactive pace. Recent publishings within the EEA showed that companies that adhere to sustainable and circular practices suffered less from lockdowns and travel restrictions than companies using conventional methods and market practices.