The Green Junction: Pandemic and Plastics by Julie Peller Ph.D.

The heightened use of plastics over the past year of pandemic living is a consequence of necessary personal protective equipment (PPE), required throwaway plastics (i.e., syringes, medical packaging) many plastic items that are low cost and easy choices. The global number of disposable face masks used monthly is estimated at 129 billion, accompanied by 65 billion gloves. It is common to witness the waste from using these items, a clear reminder of the disregard for the earth (and one another) by so many.

Studies of the SARS-COV-2 virus persistence on different types of materials have been among the scientific community’s research. The virus has been shown to persist on several plastic materials significantly longer than surfaces such as wood and metal. Therefore, improper disposal of contaminated plastic PPE can be an additional threat to public health, especially in countries with inadequate solid waste disposal. In developed nations, infectious medical waste is incinerated under high temperatures; however, the massive increase in contaminated plastic medical waste has exceeded treatment capacity in some areas. 

Many communities worldwide have made genuine efforts to address plastic waste by enacting laws that ban plastic bags and reduce other single-use plastics. Many of the plastic bag restrictions were eased or lifted early in the pandemic in response to the pandemic. These turned out to be premature decisions since no peer-reviewed studies documented higher risks of virus spread using reusable bags. There was never evidence to show that reusable grocery bags would pose any more significant threat to the virus’s spread than clothing or shoes. My local grocery store still requires self-bagging; while I do not find this to be personally disruptive, there is no scientific evidence for this protocol. Pandemic lifestyles have led to more food and goods deliveries, which usually involve plastic packaging. A plastic packaging company in Spain has reported a 40% increase in sales, and the plastic waste generated in Thailand has increased by 15%. In the United States, a reported 34% of recycling companies have either wholly or partially closed, the result of either low oil prices or decreased demand. In short, in addressing one global problem, another problem has been amplified.

As one who studies plastic waste, this news is disheartening. Indeed, we must do everything necessary to reduce the spread of the virus, but our choices can be respectful on all levels. There are alternatives to curtail the waste problems we face. Many solutions, both present and on the horizon, mostly require thoughtful respect and care. Pope Francis recently reflected on our current societal challenges: “This is a moment to dream big, to rethink our priorities—what we value, what we want, what we seek—and to commit to act in our daily life on what we have dreamed of. God asks us to dare to create something new. We need to slow down, take stock, and design better ways of living together on this earth.”

Julie Peller Ph.D. is an environmental chemist (Professor of Chemistry at Valparaiso University ) and she leads the Environmental Ministry at Nativity of Our Savior in Portage IN. Julie has been writing a weekly column for church bulletins for the past ~6 years called the Green Junction and is helping to move the call of Laudato Si to action forward. Her Research Interests are in Advanced oxidation for aqueous solutions, water quality analyses, emerging contaminants, air quality analyses, Lake Michigan shoreline challenges (Cladophora, water, and sediment contaminants), student and citizen participation in environmental work.

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