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Founded in 1995 as a printed broadsheet newspaper, Asia Times has relaunched and developed into a pan-Asia digital news platform based in Hong Kong.
Mask floating in the Mediterranean
Anne Sophie Goninet

The Pandemic And The Perilous Return Of Plastic

In normal times, we might be writing this month about the annual momentum gathering for the Plastic Free July challenge. Launched in 2011 by the Australia-based Plastic Free Foundation, the idea is simple: refusing single-use plastics, from bags to packaging, for 31 days.

But in 2020, that simple desire to go fully plastic-free for at least a month has suddenly gotten complicated. Facing the coronavirus pandemic, masks, gloves, visors, medical gowns, hand sanitizer bottles, screens in shops and supermarkets are multiplying, as short-term safety has taken precedence over the longer-term destiny of the planet. And it doesn't seem that it will abate any time soon: The World Health Organization has estimated that 89 million masks and 76 million gloves are required each month around the world to face the pandemic.

These plastic items are already finding their way into nature, and especially in the sea: the first signs of an alarming new pollution that can only get worse. As early as February 2020, OceansAsia found masks on the shores of uninhabited islands near Hong Kong. In June, the French association Opération Mer Propre released pictures and videos of dozens of gloves, masks and bottles of hand sanitizer on the Mediterranean floor.

For Laurent Lombard, who's part of the association, "we'll soon run the risk of having more masks than jellyfish in the Mediterranean", especially since the French government ordered 3.7 billion masks last month to face a potential second wave, Le Figaro reports.

It's somehow even more frustrating as progress had been made in recent years to reduce our consumption of single-use plastics, with the ban of items such as straws, plastic bags or the increasing use of reusable glass bottles. But with the fear of catching the virus through contaminated surfaces, plastic items that can be thrown away after use now feel safer for many than their washable or cloth counterparts.

In the United Kingdom, a survey conducted by the organization City to Sea found that 36% of British people felt pushed into using more single-use plastic at the moment. In Canada, theJournal de Québec found that since the beginning of the pandemic, the number of customers bringing their own reusable bags in shops have decreased by more than 40%, while packaging manufacturers increased their production by 20%.

Food deliveries have become increasingly popular in Thailand — Photo: Yuttachai Kongprasert/SOPA Images/ZUMA

With restaurants closed, food deliveries have also experienced significant growth — and with them, knives, forks and plastic containers big and small. In Thailand, urban waste nearly doubled between January and March compared with 2019 because of soaring demand for home food deliveries, the president of the Thailand Environment Institute told Asia Times.

The benefits of plastic as a protector against coronavirus can actually be questioned. There have been numerous studies to measure how long the virus could live on different surfaces; and while it is true that the virus can be found on objects after several days, recent researches found that the risk of transmission through surfaces is actually quite small and has been "exaggerated".

As for masks, an analysis led by scientists at University College London suggests that "reusable masks perform most of the tasks of single-use masks without the associated waste stream." So the least we could do is use ecological alternatives for masks, whether they are made of washable cloth, biodegradable natural fibers, or even, ironically, from old fish nets or recycled ocean plastic waste.

The urgency right now is to find a way to simultaneously raise (and balance) consciousness of the risks of pollution and the pandemic. And we can start this month, by taking the "Reusable Mask July" challenge.