The Other Pandemic: The Plastic Crisis

Every person in the UK is aware of the intensifying plastic crisis. However, did you know that by opting for a disposable face mask instead of a reusable one you are aiding the plastic pandemic?

This crisis has been a rising issue in the last several years with 78% of plastic ending up in the environment. Despite efforts such as the recent charge of 5p for plastic bags in the UK, by 2100 it is estimated that ocean acidification could cost 1.2 trillion dollars yearly. With ocean acidification, the dissolved carbon dioxide creates an environment where plastic cannot degrade in the ocean, leading to micro polymer chains of plastic. As the deposition rate is greater than the production rate of plastic, it is now one of the largest pollutants to our society.

Dell picking up plastic waste from oceans for use as new packaging material

Thanks COVID-19 there is an increased use of disposable plastic in our society – disposable face masks. They are lined with plastic and after each use they need to be thrown away, creating a further influx of plastic into the environment. Moreover, research by University College London shows if each person in the UK wore a disposable mask a day it would create 121,000 tonnes of plastic waste in one year, 66,000 tonnes of which is contaminated waste. 

It is not just about the environmental effects. Economically, it would cost each person in the UK £189.90 a year to buy disposable face masks if they were following the guidelines and protocols. Whereas, if opting for a reusable mask (whether purchased or home-made) the amount is be nominal as the mask can be washed and re-worn. 

The huge impact of plastic on the environment is a widely discussed topic. However, not many are aware of the catastrophic effects of single-use plastic; it has led to 5-13 million tonnes  of plastic ending up in the environment yearly. When plastic ends up in the ocean, there is not a sufficient amount of oxygen or UV light to aid the degradation of polymer chains; therefore the plastic remains. That plastic becomes tangled around marine animals, which prevents them from being able to eat or survive. The micro-plastic is then digested by smaller marine life and accumulates within the eco chain; this has amounted to 400 different species having either ingested or become tangled in plastic. With 2.8 million tonnes of plastic in the ocean, the need to recycle, reuse and stop using single use plastic continues to be a fundamental mission. So, when you go out next, think about using a reusable face mask.

Plastic gloves and disposable masks littering the Ocean due to COVID-19.

Others efforts to limit the spread of Covid-19, such as physically distancing and increased sanitising, have only contributed to the consumption of single-use plastics. That coffee you last had in the café, were you able to use a reusable cup? Unlikely. To decrease transmission of Covid-19, stores such as Starbucks and local cafes have stopped accepting reusable cups, resulting in people in the UK using 7 million disposable coffee cups daily. That is 2.5 billion in a year. Heightened anxiety about a second wave and aims to decrease our physical contact with others has caused the reusable cup to be a thing of our past.  

To stop the consistent and costly chain of consuming single-use plastic, to save endangered wildlife, and to save our planet before time runs out and we destroy it completely, we need to recycle, reuse, and choose more sustainable options.

Nicola Paul

The views in this article are the author’s own, and may not reflect the opinions of The Liberty Club


The Ocean Plastic Crisis – Greenpeace

The known unknowns of plastic pollution” – The Economist

Synthetic polymers in the marine environment: A rapidly increasing, long-term threat” by CJ Moore in C.J Environmental Research, Volume 108, Issue 2, October 2008.

Disposable face masks ‘are the latest menace’ in the fight against plastic pollution.” – Daily Mail Online

Chemistry Review:Plastic- eating bacteria” by E.Dux in Chemistry Review, Volume 27, Number 2, November 2017.

Blue Planet 2, Episode seven, Air Date: 10 December 2017.

Disposable coffee cups: How big a problem are they for the environment?” – The Independent

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