A pigeon investigates a single-use face mask on a city street.

A pigeon investigates a single-use face mask on a city street.

Will coronavirus cripple the fight against plastic pollution?

It seems as though single-use plastics have seen a resurgence in 2020 amid collective anxiety around the COVID-19 pandemic.

Cafes are refusing to serve drinks in reusable cups, takeaway waste is increasing, Perspex screens are becoming part of our daily lives and our use of disposable face masks is at an all-time high.

But is single-use plastic really going to make us any safer? And what is it doing to our environment?

Plastics and food

The way we eat and shop has transformed since March, when the UK went into partial lockdown. Restaurants, shops and cafes were closed and the public were advised to stay at home as much as possible.

Inevitably, shoppers turned to the internet to order takeaway food and other essentials. For a while, an online order was the only option available to many, but it did bring an increase in plastic packaging that can't always be recycled.

Steve Hynd is a campaigns manager at City to Sea, an environmental group lobbying for an end to the slew of plastics that are reaching our rivers and oceans.

He says, 'We have seen a big increase in online shopping since the pandemic started, and that brings with it an increase in packaging. Many people also admit to the phenomenon of shopper's regret, where we dislike what we've bought online. However, lots of people don't get around to sending things back, so that creates more waste.

'There's also been a reported increase in takeaway food, which comes with plastic tubs and disposable cutlery.'

Likewise, the lockdown felt like a big step backwards for the reusable coffee cup campaign.

When cafes reopened this summer, some coffee chains put a blanket ban on their staff handling reusable cups. Despite a group of more than 100 scientists announcing that reusable food containers are just as safe as disposable ones, many cafes and restaurants are slow to change, turning away reusable containers on grounds of hygiene.

Plastic screens also rapidly appeared in shops and other public spaces this spring in the hope that a physical barrier between workers and customers would help prevent the spread of disease.

Perspex, the largest manufacturer of plastic sheets in Europe, reported a 300% increase in production of its screens since the pandemic started.

Face masks

We're also using significantly more personal protective equipment (PPE) than we were in 2019.

The Department of Health and Social care reported that between 25 February and 30 June 2020, more than two billion PPE items were distributed for use by health and social care services in England. These included aprons, eye protection, face masks, gloves and gowns.

This compares with 2.43 billion items distributed over the whole year in 2019, meaning that health and social care workers are on track to use more than double the amount of PPE this year.

Most of it is single use, too. When staff are finished with it, PPE is classed as infectious waste and is incinerated, although the Department of Health say they are looking into strategies to safely decontaminate and reuse it.

That single-use equipment is desperately needed to keep healthcare workers safe while they save lives. However, the general public are being advised not to wear either plastic or medical-grade PPE and instead opt for washable, reusable face coverings.

This keeps medical supplies going to hospitals and other places where they are most needed. Opting for reusable masks also helps the environment, as plastic masks can't currently be recycled.

According to an analysis by scientists at University College London, if every person in the UK used one single-use mask every day for a year, an extra 66,000 tonnes of contaminated plastic waste would be created.

Last week, wildlife photographer Steve Shipley captured a peregrine falcon in North Yorkshire seemingly mistaking a disposable face mask for food. In July, the RSPCA warned everyone to dispose of masks properly after a sea gull also became entangled in one in Essex.

Plastic gloves are also being used more often, although evidence suggests that rigorous handwashing is a better way of keeping yourself safe.

The Food Standards Agency says that handwashing is more effective at keeping viruses at bay than wearing plastic gloves when preparing food. COVID-19 can contaminate gloves as quickly as it can contaminate bare skin.

The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control agrees, saying on their website, 'There is currently insufficient evidence to recommend the regular use of gloves as a preventive measure in the context of COVID-19 to the public and to people in most occupations.

'Use of gloves in the community may lead to the misconception that hand hygiene practices can be neglected […]. The generation of waste from unnecessary glove use causes environmental damage.'

Legislation delays

Alongside changing the way we live, the pandemic has created delays in new legislation about single-use plastic coming into force.

Government legislation to ban single-use plastic straws, cotton buds and stirrers was planned for implementation in April 2020, in line with new European Union legislation. It marked an important step in the UK Government's fight against single use plastics - we use 4.7 billion plastic straws in England every year - but the law has been delayed until October because the pandemic is disrupting supply chains.

In an explanatory note, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs wrote, 'The intention of the restrictions is to help protect the environment for future generations, improve the quality of the environment, and reduce harm to human health and marine life.'

Some are calling for the delay to be increased even further: the BBC reported that the Foodservice Packaging Association (FPA) want the ban on plastics to be pushed back until 2022.

Shops were also allowed to suspend the 5p charge for plastic bags this summer to speed up grocery deliveries.

What's the answer?

The long-term impacts of the virus remain to be seen, but it's not all bad news. For some, the pandemic has been a chance to pause and reflect on how we're living our lives. In some cases, a desire to avoid extra shopping trips could have encouraged people to try reusables.

Steve at City to Sea says, 'In times of uncertainty there are great risks and great challenges. People are also seeing the benefits of reusable products during this time.

'Through the COVID crisis, the City to Sea website has seen a massive increase in traffic to our plastic-free period products page, possibly because using reusable menstrual products means people save money - they're not having to rebuy pads and tampons - and it cuts down on shopping trips.

'It's the same with bottled water. Lots of families in the UK still drink exclusively bottled water. But of course, you need to keep going to the shop and topping up that supply, and the lockdown could have been a great opportunity for them to switch to tap water.'

Now could be a great time to drastically change our shopping habits.

Steve explains, 'At the moment, the economy that we were used to has been blown up. It's up to us as a society to decide how we want it to be built back up.

'The public broadly supports the removal of single-use plastics but, at the moment, many people's primary concern is their health and safety.

'Our advice would be to use reusables wherever you safely can. Don't default to plastic if you can avoid it.'

What would you like to know about nature?

What would you like to know about nature in lockdown in the UK? Perhaps you're curious about air pollution near you, or what happened to the urban foxes on your estate.

Let us know by answering our quick survey questions. We'll use the answers to develop new environmental science research projects.