Plastic panic

It's been widely reported the pandemic has had some positive effects on the environment, but not all is well with nature

Chulalongkorn University provides a separate bin for used face masks. (Photo by Somchai Poomlard)

Sightings of dolphins in canals, sea turtles laying eggs on the beach, and a clear sky as a result of reduced pollution may seem like silver linings amid all the devastation brought on by Covid-19. While humans may suffer, it looks as though nature and the environment are getting a much needed break to recover from all the human activities that have disrupted them in the past -- a positive impact from the lockdown, as it appears on the surface to be.

But in reality, the prolonged lockdown and all the measures we're taking to limit the spread of the virus are altering our lifestyle and behaviour greatly, and they are resulting in a large amount of plastic waste being produced each day. Some aspects of the lockdown aren't as environmentally friendly as the photos of sea animals may lead some of us to believe after all.

According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), about 450 million tonnes of plastic is produced each year, 12 million of which ends up in the ocean. The UN Environment Programme said that if this trend continues with no intervention, the world will have more plastic in the ocean than fish by 2030.

But how is the plastic situation changing with the pandemic? The Institute of Public Policy and Development (IPPD) recently organised an online panel discussion on Thailand's stance when it comes to plastic and how the entire situation is being affected by Covid-19.

It's only been a few months since convenience stores and supermarkets have stopped giving out plastic bags in the reduction initiative. In general, Thailand already uses 45 billion plastic bags in a year, 30% of which come from convenience stores, 30% from grocery stores, and 40% from markets. The reduction measure enforced back in January aimed to reduce this usage by 30%. The Pollution Control Department had a roadmap to extend the reduction to other single-use plastic items such as styrofoam, cups and drinking straws in a few years. Its ultimate goal is that by 2027, all plastic waste will be 100% recyclable to lead into a circular economy.

Above A staff member at a garbage disposal facility disinfects trash collected from hospitals that treat Covid-19 patients. Photo: Wichan Charoenkiatpakul

These measures have since been disrupted by the virus. The IPPD conducted an online survey in mid-April, gathering over 700 responses that mostly came from those living in the Bangkok area. It was found that 62% view single-use plastic as necessary, 54% have ordered food delivery and takeaway more often than before, while 47% have done more online shopping.

"The world has changed during the pandemic. Our way of life has changed since the lockdown. People are working more from home. We use plastic more and we justify this for hygienic reasons. Gloves, personal protective equipment and face masks all have plastic components. To prevent cross-contamination and spread of the virus, we are using single-use items more and more out of necessity," said Bussaba Khongpanyakul, head of the design and testing lab at the IPPD.

"Before, we'd see this as an issue of personal conscience, that we would preserve this world for the future generation. But now, it's not that anymore. It's not just about saving the planet. It's even closer to us than that. It's a matter of survival and it concerns everyone," she added.

Nattawin Chawaloesphonsiya, director of the industrial liaison programme, Faculty of Engineering, Chulalongkorn University, presented data from the Pollution Control Department that plastic trash has increased by 15%, from usually 5,500 tonnes a day to 6,300 tonnes a day, as a result of food-delivery service that has grown threefold during this period when most people stay at home. The Bangkok Metropolitan Administration also found that the amount of food waste and used face masks has increased by 1.5 tonnes per day.

He also quoted the Bangkok Post's past interview with the country's top plastic producer, TPBI, that the sales volume of plastic bags and e-commerce packaging has increased 40-50% since March, with a 10% increase in the food-packing category. On the other hand, the Biodegradable Packaging for Environment has seen its sales of food packaging growing 30%.

There has been a huge rise in home delivery. Photo: Arnun Chonmahatrakool

"During the lockdown, it may seem as though we see less trash from reduced activities," said Nattawin. "But the trash has migrated its source from outside to inside the home, with a rising amount of plastic waste. After the lockdown, people may revert to their normal lifestyle. The trash that used to be inside the home will move back outside. What's worrying is that many countries now discourage reusable bags for fear of cross-contamination, or are delaying their plastic bag reduction initiative. So, our effort in using alternative bags and reducing plastic use could disappear. We're heading back to the beginning. We're back to using single-use plastics to reduce the chance of contamination, and right back to our old behaviour."

Nattawin views that policies in reducing the use of plastics and promoting alternatives are a good start, but they won't be enough when people also have to adjust to living with the pandemic.

He also said that the current situation makes the move into a circular economy more important and pressing than before.

"We used to talk about reducing and finding replacements for plastics in the past. But now, since it'll be necessary to use them, we have to discuss how we are going to create a loop so that these plastics could come back to something useful. This is now the most pressing issue in dealing with them."

Meanwhile, Nattawin added that what consumers can do now is to reduce and reuse when they can, as well as to separate their garbage correctly. Separate food waste from dry items. As for contaminated waste such as face masks, they require proper separation and disposal in order to prevent the spread of disease. For companies, this may be a chance to redesign their packaging or find alternative materials that can help solve this plastic crisis.

Workers collect and separate trash. Nutthawat Wicheanbut

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