Sustainability in the COVID-19 era: an underlying issue

By Kaitlyn McCormick

The national and global effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have been glaring over the past 18 months, from tragic death rates, hospitals operating at crisis level capacity, labor shortages and the extreme politicization of public health, however one facet of pandemic living often goes unlooked: environmental impacts.

Sustainability and switching from single-use plastic products to more environmentally friendly options have been at the forefront of public attention within the past few years, however, the response to the coronavirus pandemic in March 2020 essentially halted a vast majority of that progress.

This public health crisis pushed single-use products to the top necessity by nature. Hospital workers need proper personal protective equipment (PPE), and, with a highly contagious virus, the safest option is to reuse products as little as possible.

The public health setting, however, is not the only place that this switch back to primarily disposable products has manifested due to the pandemic. Disposable masks have posed a huge issue environmentally.

A July 2021 article out of MIT states that “the COVID-19 pandemic is estimated to generate up to 7,200 tons of medical waste every day, much of which is disposable masks.”

Similarly, a study from the journal “Environmental Science & Technology” also reports a “monthly estimated use of 129 billion face masks and 65 billion gloves globally.”

Various restaurants and businesses are also no longer allowing for refillable cups and containers in an effort to decrease the transmission and infection rates of the virus, further adding to the waste impact.

One place that this change is noticeable is in Rider’s dining hall, Daly’s. Rather than washable dishes and silverware, food is served with disposable paper plates and plastic utensils. Paper cups are being used as well, and refillable cups and water bottles at the drink station have been temporarily disallowed due to safety concerns.

The use of pre-packaged and disposable items has evolved from a matter of convenience to a necessity for safety, in one sense, but are only contributing to danger in another.

Here is why the increased dependency on single-use plastics matters, and why it poses a threat to both biological and environmental safety.

The National Resources Defense Council, Inc. (NRDC) explains that plastic waste doesn’t actually “break down,” rather it “breaks up” into smaller particles called microplastics due to sun and heat deterioration. These microplastics and the chemicals in them pose risks to human health.

“Many of the chemicals in plastics are known endocrine disruptors, and research has suggested that human exposure could cause health impacts including hormonal imbalances, reproductive problems like infertility, and even cancer,” states the NRDC.

Outside of the increased dependency on single-use plastics, the COVID-19 pandemic has altered the way waste is managed in various countries, which again has a strong environmental impact.

A study published under the Elsevier Public Health Emergency Collection by the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) explains that “The dramatic increase in medical waste is overloading the capacity of each country or municipality, to manage/treat it adequately … many countries are classifying all hospital waste as infectious, which require to be incinerated under high temperatures, allowing sterilization, followed by landfilling of residual ash.”

Climate effects due to a global dependency on plastic and highly disposable products have already been at the forefront of concern from a scientific standpoint, and COVID-19 has only heightened this issue.

The increased use of single-use plastics due to the coronavirus pandemic undoubtedly contributes to the negative environmental effects caused by plastic use in general, which will only continue to exacerbate the planet’s climate crisis.

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