The Fourth R: Rethink

How to address the new environmental challenges brought by the surge of the coronavirus

By Victoria Prado Fernandes, Bill Bivins

by Brian Yurasits

If any good news could come out of the devastating COVID-19 pandemic, it has come from its modest environmental benefits. Air quality has improved drastically in cities typically covered by smog. Global emissions of CO2 may fall as much as 17% by the end of this year, and cities such as Miami see significant improvements in water quality from less boating traffic.

Some see this moment as a chance to make the economy more sustainable, while others are still concerned about a post-pandemic surge in plastic pollution levels.

Single-use personal protective equipment (PPE), as well as packaging from takeout food and water bottles, have seen a significant rise in demand during the COVID-19 pandemic. Moreover, offices and businesses are erecting walls of plexiglass, which will go straight to the landfill once we are on the other side of this pandemic.

Without proper manufacturing, usage, and disposal infrastructure, the pandemic has negatively impacted all three Rs — namely: Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle.

Reduce? The surge in demand for PPE has caused the opposite of reduction. Plastic use has skyrocketed.
Reuse? Plastic-made PPE is predominantly used a single time. Reusing is perceived as a risk of contamination by the virus.
Recycle? Not allowed. All face masks and gloves should go into the trash in a securely tied garbage bag.

Rethink! The circular economy model faces a big obstacle: the challenge of contamination. It is time to reconsider how we manage our waste in this new reality.

The Contamination Paradox

How is one to even fathom the thought of reusing and repurposing materials when the primary concern at the present moment is avoiding contamination? The constant fear of infection paired with the lack of information makes single-use PPE the most sought-after option for the general public.

Millions of gloves and masks are being used and thrown away every single day. It understandably feels safer to dispose of face-masks after each use, yet this habit can be seriously detrimental as it puts the health of frontline workers and the planet at stake.

Waste-management facility workers are handling contaminated material and hence endangering themselves daily. Furthermore, the surge in demand and hence disposal of PPE is flooding our oceans.

The conception that single-use plastic bags and PPE are safer is actually not supported by experts and causes additional public health concerns. Plastic pollution is one of the worst kinds there is. None of that plastic ever goes away. Plastic is the antithesis of compostable: it breaks down into smaller microplastic particles that take upwards of 400 years to break down. At every stage of its lifecycle, plastic poses serious risks to human health. We are breathing, eating, and drinking this toxic material every day.

This could be the solution

(1) We must deeply rethink and restructure the outdated life-cycle systems of production and disposal that are currently in place.

(2) We must educate ourselves on how to dispose of PPE and other trash in the proper way. Be disciplined and follow the rules.

(3) We must standardize the recycling process across the country and encourage businesses to put the recycling programs in place.

In this Pink-Bag Series of articles, our goal is to bring into light some of the new environmental challenges brought by the surge of the novel coronavirus. We will break down these problems and attempt to propose practical, fact-based suggestions. We will discuss the chain of events and reactions that are leading to momentous social, economic, and environmental repercussions across the globe. Stay safe and stay tuned!

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