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75% of “Covid waste” will end up in dump sites or floating in sea


Not only will PPE provide a problem but all waste gathered during the lockdown.

File image. Picture: AP Photo Francisco Seco

IT’S CALLED “Covid waste” – vast quantities of plastic that have arisen from the pandemic and is now piling up on streets, beaches, landfills and choking waterways and oceans.

But the surging use of disposable masks, gloves, protective gowns and face shields, is not the whole story, according to the UN’s trade agency, UNCTAD.

“Social distancing has also led to a flood of products delivered daily to homes – wrapped in a plethora of packaging – as people turn to online shopping and takeout services. The ensuing plastic waste is enormous,” said Pamela Coke-Hamilton, the director of international trade at UNCTAD.

Before the pandemic, plastic pollution was one of the biggest threats to the planet. “The sudden boom in the daily use of certain products to keep people safe and stop the disease is making things much worse,” said Coke-Hamilton.”

Data shows how global sales of disposable face masks alone are set to soar from an estimated $166 million in 2019 to $800m in 2020. Estimates are that around 75% of the used masks, as well as other pandemic-related waste, will end up in landfills or floating in the seas.

“The biggest challenge has been that the plastic industry has perpetuated this idea that plastic is safe and hygienic,” said Niven Reddy, the Africa co-ordinator for Break Free From Plastic, “which is why we have to constantly reinforce the narrative that reusable materials are safe. There have been a few cases where existing policies have been rolled back to allow the reintroduction of plastic items in stores but also on a much larger scale where countries with national laws have allowed plastic production seen as essential.”

The plastic industry is leveraging the need for personal protective equipment (PPE) to “drive the argument that we need to invest in false solutions such as chemical recycling, incineration, plastic to fuel as a ‘way out’ of a much more visible crisis,” he said.

Anton Hanekom, the executive director of Plastics SA, said that locally the industry did not try to leverage the pandemic to push the demand for plastic.

“This can be seen in the overall consumption of plastics that has reduced over the last 20 months. Even looking at the 15% growth in the last 10 years, it is less than the population growth of 19%. Instead, we believe the pandemic did increase the demand for health and safety equipment made from plastic, demonstrating the benefits, impact and importance of plastics in our modern lives.

“From the industry’s side, we continue to argue that the real issue that needs to be addressed is not the use of plastics, but human behaviour.

“The bottom line is that plastics are an essential part of our modern lifestyle. The importance of it was just once again highlighted during the pandemic.”

A zero-plastic future was never an option, he said. “What we are working towards, however, is a future with zero plastic pollution … Almost every sector of life relies on plastics to make life easier, safer and more convenient.”

Plastic pollution has long been a problem, said groundwork waste campaigner manager Musa Chamane, now intensified by the pandemic. “The used medical PPE is mainly made of plastic and is used only once, thus creating a lot of plastic waste that we have to deal with. Some ends up at landfills and dumpsites, exposing waste pickers to infections. Disinfecting medical PPE through microwave or autoclave technology and shredding and disposal at toxic sites may be the viable option of dealing with this waste stream.”

Muzi Mkhwanazi, Pikitup spokesperson, said it is difficult to quantify the amount of plastic or gloves in landfills. “It has already been compressed by the compactor truck and it then becomes difficult to characterise the waste disposed at such sites.”

Was PPE deliberately dumped in clean river?

By last weekend, Tarryn Johnstone and her team of volunteer river warriors had spent more than a week clearing plastic waste and styrofoam debris choking a scenic stretch of the polluted Hennops River at the Irene Country Club near Centurion.

There was just one more day to go. Then on Sunday morning, Johnstone, who runs the non-profit Hennops Revival, received a disturbing call: hundreds and hundreds of boxes of unused PPE had been spotted floating in the river.

Blue gloves were spilling out into the river and on its banks, everywhere.

For Johnstone, it was a disappointing turn of events, “especially since we spent nine days at the country club cleaning and working hard to make the river beautiful again, only to be met with this horrendous sight in the morning”.

That the PPE was deliberately dumped in the river is now the subject of a police investigation.

“Thousands of gloves have gone downstream – we will be picking them up for years,” she remarked. “We are still finding bits and pieces all over the place, there is literally a continuous stream.

“And obviously, because the place was so clean, it was easily noticed.”

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