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Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Single-use plastic: from sinner to saviour

How many millions of lives were saved by ‘single-use plastics’ during the pandemic, asks Barry Twigg?

The World Health Organisation (W.H.O.) has estimated that since the outbreak of the pandemic – worldwide – some 6.2 million people have died from Covid, with more than 500 million others falling ill in 190 countries.

For over a year, our only defence against Covid came from ‘single-use plastics’. According to the National Audit Office, in 2020, the UK alone had purchased some 12.5 billion items of ‘single use plastics’ in the form of PPE to protect our population from this deadly infection. This figure has since risen to 24 billion items of ‘single-use plastics’.

In addition, billions of ‘plastic wrapped’ tablets and anti-bacterial spray bottles were used in the fight against covid. Yet, despite these facts, just last month, Labour peer Baroness Jones of Whitchurch, asked the government: “When would they ban the sale of ‘single use plastics?”

If ever there was a perfect example of the ignorance and populist anti-plastic paranoia in our politics, then this question from Baroness Jones was it.

If only she had stopped for just one moment to think about how we would have tackled Covid without ‘single use plastics’, she may have realised it was only thanks to ‘single use plastic’ in all its various forms that we were able to fight the disease.

She should have considered the contribution made by the following:

Face Masks

An estimated 52 billion face masks were sold worldwide in 2020 as the Covid virus spread around the world. Its transfer was predominantly through moisture droplets expelled when the infected person coughed or sneezed. Thus, face masks proved to be invaluable defence against the spread of infection. As these masks are predominantly polypropylene and polyester, they were/are a blend of ‘single use plastics’.

Anti-bacterial sprays

Worldwide, billions of antibacterial sprays were sold, all in ‘single-use plastic’ bottles. According to Nielson, this was a $200 million market which grew 40 percent overnight as the pandemic hit and panic buying of anti-Covid hand and surface sanitisation became essential.

Plastic Gloves

Whilst no accurate figures are available, in March 2020 the W.H.O. estimated 76 million pairs of plastic gloves per month were needed, just for frontline medical workers. By April 2021, National Geographic estimated some worldwide 65 billion plastic gloves were being used each year, virtually all of these gloves were ‘single use plastic’.

Plastic Testing Kits

Lateral flow and PCR tests. Even Google can’t answer how many billion Covid tests have been taken! However, for the last two years, these tests have ruled our lives, determining when we could go to work, on holiday, or simply stop at home in quarantine. All were ‘single-use plastic’.

And so it goes on.

Plastic goggles, plastic aprons, billions of tablets all plastic wrapped. Billions of plastic syringes. Intensive care units rely on everything in plastic, from respiratory masks to plastic tubes. The entire battle against Covid has been fought by our health professionals with the aid of plastics.

Our doctors, nurses and frontline care workers, as well as the general public, have all benefited from the health protection that plastics have provided.

When Covid surfaced, there was a worldwide shortage of PPE, but the plastics Industry here in the UK responded fantastically well. Manufacturers changed their processes to produce protective equipment within days and weeks. Few industries could have responded as efficiently and effectively as those who manufacture plastics. Yet nowhere was this response given any recognition. Indeed, when China was able to upscale production of PPE, many UK companies were quietly dropped by the NHS health trusts as their products were not ‘approved’.

So, how grateful were we to plastics?

It would have been reasonable to anticipate a worldwide appreciation of the role of ‘single-use plastics’ in the fight against Covid. It is a fact that until vaccines came along, plastic PPE, antibacterial sprays and self-isolation were our only defences against the disease.

In the event, the demand for a ban on ‘single-use plastics’ by Baroness Jones is not untypical and simply displays the ignorance of the media and those in authority of the role that plastics play in our lives. Virtually all those gloves, aprons, plastic bottles and testing kits are single use that could be recycled. However, the medical profession has a long history of incinerating hazardous waste.

As for the majority of the plastic used by the public: of the 326 local authorities in the UK, virtually all will collect plastic bottles. Yet just 68 (13 percent) will collect other mixed plastics for recycling and whilst the UK recycles some 58 percent of its plastic packaging waste, the majority of PPE goes to incineration to produce energy. Whilst using plastic waste as an energy source is no better for the climate than using other fossil fuels, there is a major difference. Unlike the petrol, diesel and aero fuel burned for transportation, the plastic has fulfilled a valuable function prior to disposal. In its use as PPE it helped to save many lives and prevent many more from being ill.

Finally, we hear a lot about the face masks littering our streets and leaking into our oceans. The ‘research’ from Visual Capitalist and others has concluded that 1.6 billion face masks have been dumped in the oceans. A so called ‘environmental catastrophe’ has been reported in the media. They conclude that these masks will be around for ‘hundreds of years’. Their report does not criticise those who dumped or threw away the masks, nor give any reference to the role these masks had played in preventing infection. Both simply infer that any damage caused to the environment is the fault of the plastics for being there!

As indicated, this attitude is not untypical. The media never praise the invaluable contribution ‘single use plastic’ along with tablets, test kits, intensive care unit products, have made to saving millions from illness and death. As ever, anti-plastic rhetoric prevails and only the plastic waste dumped by people and countries is mentioned, along with its negative effect on our environment.

At some point in the future, someone may acknowledge the debt we owe to ‘single-use plastic’ in our fight against covid.

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