How dramatically and unexpectedly the world changes. At the World Economic Forum at Davos back in January, the major topic of conversation was the world’s war against the polluting scourge of single-use plastic waste clogging up our oceans. With rapidly rising global awareness, and the popular and political will to find a solution, it seemed as though we might finally have the resources and the wherewithal to tackle this devastating pollutant.
Almost none of us gathered there at that small ski resort were talking about another, more immediate war — against an unseen and deadly enemy, COVID-19. In a few short months, billions of dollars in global resources, coupled with scientific, medical and humanitarian expertise, have been re-directed to fighting this war on all fronts. And it’s horribly ironic that the best defence weapon we have to protect ourselves in this battle, is made of the very stuff which we were all vigorously excoriating back in January.
Personal protective equipment (PPE) on which frontline medical staff and key workers rely to protect them from COVID-19, is made almost entirely of single-use plastic.
Of course, I whole-heartedly support the speedy manufacture and distribution of PPE to every worker who needs it around the globe. We’ve been supplying it in bulk to our own employees. In the absence of a vaccine or even a widely accepted treatment, PPE is the best first line defence against catching COVID-19 that we have.
We need PPE. But we also need to figure out how to get rid of it.
We’ve all seen shocking pictures of discarded plastic covering the beaches of developing countries and wrapped around turtles and inside fish. Now imagine those same beaches covered with used, and possibly infectious, PPE.
We can’t allow it to happen. For the sake of our health, as a species and for the planet, we must find a safe way of managing and disposing of waste PPE.
So, what do we do? Even before the COVID-19 pandemic took hold, the challenge of safely disposing of waste plastics was one which stumped many environmentalists and policy-makers. Recycling plastic is complicated: thin plastics of the type that goes to make up PPE are rarely cost-effective to recycle because it’s cheaper for manufacturers to buy virgin — particularly now, with oil prices so low.
The focus amongst environmental activists and policy-makers to date has been on behavioural change of both producers and citizens, essentially to encourage consumers and manufacturers to drastically reduce the amount of plastic they bought and used in the first place.
But when it comes to PPE, asking people to use less of it is simply not an option.
So if we can’t use less, and we can’t re-use it through recycling, what can we do?
Different countries have been developing different waste regulatory frameworks and approaches to tackling plastic waste.
For many countries, landfill is the only realistic short-term solution due to a lack of infrastructure which can safely treat infectious waste. This is the case across many developing countries across the African continent. But PPE waste needs to be handled with extreme care. Allowing informal waste pickers to collect and attempt to reuse PPE is highly dangerous, and this is the reality on many poorly managed landfills and dump sites across many emerging economies.
For other countries, there is the slightly better option of incineration. Incineration has been shunned by some over environmental concerns, but technology has evolved a great deal since its early days, with unwanted gases released during the burning process now able to be removed through the use of gas cleaning technologies, meaning that this method of disposal is much less harmful to the environment than it used to be. Incineration also has the beneficial effect of killing off any virus still on the PPE. The heat produced from waste incineration can also become a source of energy, being recycled back into national energy grids.
At this point we need to make pragmatic decisions and select the least-worst option: controlled burning of this PPE waste is the only feasible solution for the time being. We are simply going to have to increase incineration capacity, particularly in developing countries which have few incinerators… and we are going to have to apply our finest technical research capabilities into developing incinerators so that they continue to become less environmentally harmful and more efficient at producing energy, which at least can then be used to benefit citizens.
The question of waste PPE is a global problem and it needs a multi-lateral solution. I call upon Governments across the world to cooperate with each other, and on citizens to make tackling this problem a global priority, with investment to match. I do not want to see what we have so shamefully seen in the recent past: richer countries dumping their waste on poorer ones. Africa and South-East Asia simply cannot cope with an influx of infectious plastics waste when
they are already battling COVID-19 on so many fronts. In fact, these regions need further investment in cleaning and collection, the most basic type of waste management. Too many citizens across the Global South cannot rely on having their waste collected from their streets regularly and safely — something which we in developed countries take entirely for granted.
Longer term, more research is desperately needed into better plastics recycling technology. Our understanding of the science and our ability to recycle more efficiently different types of plastic has made great
strides forward in recent years and this virus must add further impetus to the work that is being done. This innovation needs to be supported by legislative levers which re
duce unnecessary plastic packaging and incentivises the use of recycled materials over virgin plastic.
The battle against PPE waste may appear another front in a war that is already incredibly complicated. But even as we fight COVID-19, we must keep one eye on the long-term future of our natural world. The health of people and of our planet are inextricably intertwined.