COVID-19 has “changed peoples’ perceptions of plastic,” says University Professor, as the pandemic leads to a surge in its consumption.
In recent months, the public have turned to protective equipment such as face masks, gloves and gowns – commonly made of plastic – as a way of keeping themselves and their loved ones safe.
Environmental experts are now warning that COVID-19 could pose an entirely different threat altogether, setting back the war on single-use plastics.
Prof. Dan Parsons, Director at the Energy & Environment Institute at the University of Hull, recently spoke on BBC Radio Humberside about the issue.
He said: “During the COVID-19 pandemic, our thoughts and feelings around plastic have changed because of the new relationships we have had with it.
“When we go out now, the first thing people reach for is the face mask, or gloves, both of which are made of plastic. It is now seen as this protective barrier against a disease we cannot see.
“Plastic has in recent months been the thing we have turned to, to keep us safe, and that is where this new relationship with it is really interesting.”
The University of Hull recently launched a Plastics Collaboratory, to further explore the interactions between plastic, people and our natural world.
Comprising of more than 45 academics and PhD students, in fields including health, politics, logistics, chemistry, environmental sciences and education, the Collaboratory is identifying the gaps and leaks in a plastics circular economy, and aims to instigate changes in our use of plastics, from product design to how materials are recycled.
Every year, around 12 million tonnes of plastic enters our oceans. By 2050, it is predicted there will be more plastic than fish in the sea.
Concerns have now been raised that COVID-19 could also provide a set-back in the battle against single-use plastic consumption.
“So much progress had been made about changing peoples’ perceptions, but a number of studies have shown that plastic usage has massively increased during the pandemic,” Prof. Parsons said.
“Plastic is completely embedded within the global economy. Almost every product we buy or consume will have plastic somewhere in its supply chain.
“We need to look at the way we use and recycle plastics, and remove it where possible.”
In recent months, experts have also found COVID-19 had contributed to a sharp decline in global carbon emissions, as industry shut down and transport levels have fallen rapidly.
However, as industry fires up again and many nations are re-awakening from periods of lockdown, new data has shown emissions are once again on the increase.
“The most recent estimates have shown a new spike in emissions, and that levels are actually now higher than those from the same time last year, as the global economy restarts. Indeed, we are approaching levels of CO2 in the atmosphere not seen for 15 million years,” Prof. Parsons said.
“This shows that, both in global climate change and our pollution of the world’s oceans, we have some very big challenges for us as a society.”
For more information on the University of Hull’s Plastics Collaboratory, visit https://www.hull.ac.uk/work-with-us/research/institutes/energy-and-environment-institute/our-work/plastics-collaboratory.
[Phil Winter – University of Hull]