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(JAI:  In California the flimsy but serviceable formerly free plastic bags
at the supermarkets were replaced with heavier duty, 'layered', plastic
that cost the shoppers a dime.  This is an effort to 'train' customers to
reuse the sturdier bags.  This is described much further down in the below.

(That policy has led to a 'sea' of heavy duty plastic bags (now 'free' to
protect the workers from possible contamination by reused bags) and
shoppers, no longer constrained, now routinely use the heavier bags,
accumulating with each trip to the store, to perform tasks, eg as trash
receptacles, that the thin bags formerly accomplished with less damage to
the environs.)

Sea of troubles:  Covid-19 has led to a pandemic of Plastic Pollution

As the world produces more protective equipment—and gorges on
takeaways—pity the oceans
Jun 22nd 2020


THE THAMES has always been a reflector of the times, says Lara Maiklem, a
London “mudlark”. Ms Maiklem spends her days on the river’s foreshore
foraging for history’s detritus, from Roman pottery to Victorian clay
pipes. She can tell the time of year, she says, just by the type of rubbish
she has to sift through: champagne bottles during the first week of
January; footballs in summer. The year 2020 has left its own mark. Since
the coronavirus reached Britain the mud has sprouted a crop of latex gloves.

In February, half a world away, Gary Stokes docked his boat on Hong Kong’s
isolated Soko Island. Soko’s beaches are where OceansAsia, the conservation
organisation he runs, sporadically records levels of plastic pollution. Mr
Stokes says he is all too accustomed to finding the jetsam the modern world
throws up, such as plastic drinks bottles and supermarket carrier-bags. But
what he documented that day made news across Hong Kong: 70 surgical
facemasks on a 100-metre stretch of beach. Having cleaned it up, he went
back four days later. Like a stubborn weed, the masks had returned.

Whether on the foreshore of the Thames or the deserted beaches of Soko, the
planet is awash with pandemic plastic. Data are hard to come by but, for
example, consumption of single-use plastic may have grown by 250-300% in
America since the coronavirus took hold, says Antonis Mavropoulos of the
International Solid Waste Association (ISWA), which represents recycling
bodies in 102 countries. Much of that increase is down to demand for
products designed to keep covid-19 at bay, including masks, visors and
gloves. According to a forecast from Grand View Research, the global
disposable-mask market will grow from an estimated $800m in 2019 to $166bn
in 2020.

Staggering though such figures are, personal protection is only part of the
story. Lockdowns have also led to a boom in e-commerce. In March, as parts
of America and Europe shut up shop, some 2.5bn customers are reckoned to
have visited Amazon’s website, a 65% increase on last year. In China, more
than 25% of physical goods were bought online during the first quarter of
the year, according to the Peterson Institute for International Economics,
a think-tank in Washington, DC.

Much of what is bought online comes wrapped in plastic—and the bad kind at
that. Goods are often packaged in plastic comprising several layers. That
keeps the contents safe in aeroplane holds and on delivery lorries. It also
makes it nearly impossible to recycle the plastic. At the same time, the
locked-down masses have been consuming home deliveries from restaurants in
record numbers. First-quarter sales at Uber Eats, one of America’s biggest
restaurant-delivery apps, for example, rose by 54% year on year. Every
extra portion of curry, or pot of garlic dip, means more plastic waste.

If the public’s increasing appetite for single-use plastic worries
environmentalists, then so too does its diminishing inclination to recycle
materials that can be reused. In Athens, for example, there has been a 150%
increase in the amount of plastic found in the general-waste stream, says
Mr Mavropoulos. Anecdotal evidence from ISWA members suggests this is a
worldwide trend. An unwillingness to recycle might be explained by people’s
nervousness about venturing out to put waste in recycling bins. Or it might
just be that lockdowns have put more pressing matters into their minds,
prompting a slip in their diligence.

Covid-19 has led to a glut in plastic waste in other ways. For one, the
pandemic caused a crash in the oil price. Because petroleum is a major
constituent of most plastics, they became cheaper to produce, says David Xi
of the University of Warwick. That in turn gave firms less incentive to use
the recycled stuff. But the growth of plastic rubbish is mainly caused by
the fact that municipalities around the world have curtailed their
recycling schemes. Collections have been cut back and plants have been shut
over fears about spreading the contagion. Worries about contaminated
rubbish have also made some refuse collectors and sorters nervous about
going into work (the virus can survive for about 72 hours on plastic).

All of which means that much of the plastic produced this year is ending up
either in landfill sites or being incinerated. Both could store up future
problems. Landfills, especially in poor countries, are often little more
than open dumps. They are responsible for some of the biggest leakages of
plastics into oceans, says Mr Mavropoulos. Because the material is light,
it is easily swept by rain or wind into waterways.

Incineration is not much better. Again, particularly in the developing
world where facilities can be shoddy, not only can burning plastics create
toxins, but it also often fails to obliterate the plastic, leaving
considerable levels of nano- and micro-particles. These can both be emitted
into the atmosphere, where they can cause cancers, or leach into
groundwater and eventually into oceans.

There is no academic consensus on whether plastics in the oceans, once they
are broken down by salt and sun into micro-particles, are particularly
dangerous to animals. Polymers, on which plastics are based, are chemically
inert, although some additives can be toxic. But given the huge natural
experiment now under way, researchers may soon have a clearer idea. “We are
only just starting to understand the potential impacts of nanoparticles and
the way in which they can penetrate into living cells in marine organisms
as well,” says Dan Parsons, director of the Energy and Environment
Institute at the University of Hull. “Plastic nanomaterials released into
the environment could be the asbestos of the seas.”

Indeed, like the virus itself, pandemic-era plastic pollution is hitting
the poor hardest, says Inger Andersen, executive director of the United
Nations Environment Programme. In low-income countries, 93% of waste goes
into open dumps, she says. And where there are incinerators, they tend to
be of low quality. Even in rich countries, the poor are more likely to live
closer to facilities that deal with rubbish, says Ms Andersen.

There are good reasons why the public has turned to plastics, says Mr
Parsons: “People know that it protects them” from the coronavirus. Not only
that, points out Ms Andersen, it is hardly fair to blame manufacturers for
producing environmentally unfriendly protective equipment—or consumers for
buying it—given the global scramble
to obtain the materials needed to make the masks and visors that keep
health workers and others safe. And a world in which less plastic is
produced would not necessarily be a greener one. Because the material is
light, it often causes lower emissions when it is transported than
alternatives do.

But what worries Mr Parsons is that years spent trying to change the
public’s attitude towards single-use plastic might now be lost. Preliminary
findings from research his team has conducted suggest that the public has
reverted to its earlier insouciance about plastic waste. The pandemic has
already encouraged the rolling back of anti-plastic legislation, such as
taxes on single-use grocery bags in some American states, or a ban on
plastic straws in Britain. Ironically, that may even help the climate. But
just as covid-19 has scarred families and harmed livelihoods across the
world, its effect on the planet will linger, too, in the world’s landfills
and oceans.
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