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Environment

COVID-19 Pandemic Has Led To More Ocean Plastic Pollution

Plastic and other garbage polluting in the Adriatic Sea. (Andrey Nekrasov/Barcroft Media via Getty Images)
Plastic and other garbage polluting in the Adriatic Sea. (Andrey Nekrasov/Barcroft Media via Getty Images)

The coronavirus has worsened the amount of plastic polluting the world’s oceans.

That’s according to Dave Ford, founder of the environmental literacy organization SoulBuffalo and the Ocean Plastics Leadership Network, a group that brings activists and the industry together to develop solutions to ocean plastic pollution.

There is an “environmental silver lining” as a result of the coronavirus — carbon emissions have been reduced by more than 4%, many wildlife markets around the world have been shuttered and air quality in some places has slightly improved, Ford says.

But thanks to an increase in pandemic-related, non-recyclable materials such as take-out plastic containers and masks, 30% more waste has crept into our oceans, he notes.

“There’s 129 billion facemasks being made every month — enough that you could cover the entire country of Switzerland with facemasks at the end of this year if trends continue,” he says. “And a lot of these masks are ending up in the water.”

The masks look like jellyfish — thus, food — to turtles and other wildlife creatures, he says.

Very little of the plastic we use is actually recyclable. Sharon Lerner of The Intercept told Here & Now last year that “the vast majority of plastic that has ever been produced — 79% — has actually ended up in landfills or scattered around the world or burned, but not refashioned into new products.”

Even if the plastics we have can be reused, Ford says recycling programs across the globe are facing drastic budget cuts.

“We’re starting to see recycling programs shuttered, waste picking communities operating at 50% or actually shutting down. They are the last line of defense between plastic and the environment,” he says.

Last year, Unilever pledged to cut its use of non-recycled virgin plastics in half by 2025. In an interview with Here & Now, Richard Slater, Unilever’s chief research and development officer, drew on the industry argument that plastic packaging is lighter, which means less shipping and therefore fewer dangerous emissions that cause climate change.

Ford says that industry narrative is “a paradox in itself.”

Yes, plastics are lightweight and can cut down on fuel spending, he says. But on the other hand, plastic waste is being found in every facet of life — from the deepest oceanic trench on Earth to mountain peaks. Studies have even found tiny plastic particles in rainfall.

While this “super material” has helped humans evolve, the sheer amount of plastic is concerning, Ford says, especially since “we haven’t been able to figure out how to control the way it gets into the environment.”

Ford says industry transparency is one first step toward finding solutions to our plastic problem. A recent World Wildlife Fund initiative called ReSource: Plastic had five large companies — Starbucks, Keurig Dr Pepper, McDonald’s Corporation, Procter & Gamble and The Coca-Cola Company — go public with how much plastic waste they manufactured, whether the plastic is recyclable or not, and where they believe the plastic is ending up.

“It’s a huge step forward because for us to figure out what we’re gonna do with it, we have to figure out how much is getting out there to begin with,” Ford says.

The first ReSource: Plastics report was “pretty incredible,” he says, because it revealed industry insights that advocacy groups would not have otherwise been privy to.

ReSource: Plastics is looking to have 100 of the world’s biggest companies sign on to their transparency initiative by 2030. While Ford acknowledges this project makes for a good action plan, he would like the goal to be a bit more ambitious.

“With respect to this issue, I don’t think we still want to be talking about supply chain transparency 10 years from now,” he says. “We really need to accelerate across the board with how much of this is getting into the environment.”


Lynn Menegon produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Todd Mundt. Serena McMahon adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.