By Vidushi, Aditya C
Single Use Plastics (SUPs) ever since their emergence in the 1980s have played a ubiquitous role in the world economy. Their versatility and convenience have served us in multiple ways, and only recently has the public drawn its attention to the undisposed SUPs choking our city drainage systems and killing birds and animals who mistakenly consume it as food. The world was already struggling with the ever-increasing plastic pile, before the pandemic came along and exacerbated the problem like never before. With more than 1 million people dead from COVID-19 globally and economic growth at halt (with the positive side-effect of clearer skies) the pandemic has catapulted humanity in a colossal plastic waste management crisis. India’s waste management infrastructure has continued struggling for long to keep pace with the country’s growing economy, which now coupled with the large population has worsened the plastic pollution situation.
The plastic mountain
Medics and Health workers working on the fore-front are required to wear Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) which comprises components like respirator, face shield, gown, goggles and gloves. The entire PPE is majorly made up of plastics like polyester and polypropylene , with the exception of gloves in which the latex variant is also available . India has seen a drastic growth in the number of cases since May 2020 and hence is struggling with consequential plastic waste generated from the medical sector. The initial shortage of PPE kits was quickly fulfilled with numerous companies emerging in India to manufacture PPE kits, making India the second largest PPE kit producer.  Availability of the kit is still a problem even with more than 600 licenced PPE manufacturers in the country , and an even bigger problem awaiting is safe disposal of these single use plastic kits. Even though international travel is restricted, domestic travel requires passengers to wear the PPE too. According to a recent study, 3 in 4 urban Indians (76%) wear masks in public places . Other major behavioural changes recorded in the pandemic are bulk buying (or ‘panic buying’), increase in packaging materials as people prefer home delivery of groceries in cities, online shopping and tendency of customers buying plastic packages items for better protection , all which is gradually leading to a cascade of unmanaged plastic. A recent study observed a surge of 55% in online shopping in India .
Already insufficient waste management infrastructure of the country has been now put to a bigger test. China is the biggest manufacturer of face masks and reports say that those masks are hard to recycle owing to their multi-layer composition . Consumers while using SUPs tend to believe that it will get recycled ultimately, however due to higher cost of recycling of SUP as compared to other plastics, companies are less interested in investing in SUP recycling. Decreased recycling means SUPs could end up in landfills, ultimately contaminating the ecosystem and putting waste handlers at risk of COVID-19 infection. Plastics being non-biodegradable after much wear and tear are reduced to microplastics which ultimately ends up entering the food chain and hence our bodies as well. Energy requirement of the medical sector and hence the ecological impact has increased, which is finally going to waste due to the large Single Use items involved. Even before the pandemic there were reports suggesting ridiculously minimal rate of recycling of the world’s plastic waste. The problem now has intensified as the drastic dip in global oil prices have led to virgin plastic being cheaper than recycled plastic, which has rendered the recycling process less lucrative .
UNEP declared plastic pollution to be a worldwide crisis in 2017 and since then attempts have been made by governments and businesses to tackle the problem. Even before the pandemic had struck, Ellen McArthur Foundation had reported that plastic in the oceans will outnumber the fish by 2050. With the plastic menace bigger than ever, PM Narendra Modi recently appealed to the public to avoid using SUPs as well. To wait until after the pandemic ends would be too late and hence immediate and effective action is essential.
Conquering the mountain
The plastic problem can be alleviated by a combination of behavioural changes by the common masses and strengthening our infrastructure for a sustainable pathway of overcoming the pandemic.
1. .Lowering the environmental impact of PPE
Use of PPE for healthcare workers is a mandatory condition. Majority of PPE in use today is designed for single use, and since it is largely made of polypropylene, recycling is not easily achieved. Hindustan Times reported in June 2020 that daily biomedical waste generated by medical institutions in Delhi has increased to 2.5 – 4 kg per bed during the pandemic as compared to the usual 500 g per bed. Using such big sized PPEs once before sending them to landfills doesn’t help India’s plastic pollution situation. Even as we deal with the plastic menace, many parts of India are still facing PPE shortages. There could be a couple of ways to approach these problems.
1.1 Using reusable PPE instead of single use PPE
Reusable PPEs could be a means to tackle the problem of PPE shortage as well as plastic pollution. Single Use gowns are made from nonwoven fabrics like polypropylene and PET whereas reusable gowns are largely made of woven PET. Accounting all the processes of manufacturing and life time of a reusable gown, it has lesser cost, energy demand, environmental impact than a single use PPE. A study shows that switching from single use gowns to reusable gowns can lower the energy consumption by 64%, water consumption by 83%, solid waste generated by 84% and greenhouse gas emissions by 66% . Reusable gowns need to be disinfected and sterilized after each use, for which different methods are available. Chemical decontamination methods include chlorine dioxide, bleach, ethylene oxide, ozone and hydrogen peroxide. Physical methods include methods like treatment with UV rays and gamma radiation. Many studies are available that prove disinfection and sterilization of PPE does not lead to a decrease in its efficacy.  Strong evidence is available proving that coronaviruses are affected by vaporization of hydrogen peroxide . Methods with less environmental impact and more efficacy are hydrogen peroxide vapour , ultraviolet radiation , and ozone gas for masks.
1.2 Reusable masks for uninfected masses
Masses especially in urban India tend to rely more on surgical masks and respirators for a better protection. As per a latest study, while single use surgical masks scored 99% in material filtration efficiency, three layered cotton masks scored 86.4%, which is not a very exceptional difference . The Prime Minister and many other leading politicians are frequently seen donning reusable masks. For healthy and uninfected people who follow other precautions of social distancing and general hygiene, reusable cotton masks can be a cost effective and environment friendly substitute for a surgical mask.
2. Replacing conventional plastic with bioplastics
The cost of environmental effects of crude oil and natural gas draws attention to other manufacturing means. Bioplastics made from sugar, starch, cellulose by mixing fibres have a quite high potential for substituting conventional plastics. Bioplastics can be categorised by bio-degradable, bio-based or both. Global bioplastics production capacity is set to increase from around 2.11 million tonnes in 2019 to approximately 2.43 million tonnes in 2024 . There are four types of bio-plastics available :
There are mainly three ways that can be chosen to manufacture bio-based plastics. The most popular one is wherein natural polymers are preserved and chemically modified to starch or cellulose based plastics. This type of material is used for non-food applications (e.g. cellulose acetate). Second method is a two-step process used for conversion by chemical transformation followed by polymerization. Third method is a process to manufacture polymeric material. (e.g. PHA) 
The University of British Columbia (UBC) have developed a sustainable solution during the COVID-19 pandemic. A medical grade N95 mask has been made using wood fibres as raw material. Moreover, this mask is claimed to be made from all local materials, is inexpensive, and is compostable and biodegradable. The mask is currently being tested for achieving required Canada’s health standards.
Currently the percentage of bioplastic are only 1-2% of the global plastics production. However, bioplastics have already penetrated through industries such as packaging, food-services, agriculture, consumer electronics and automotive. Bio-plastics show a great promise to replace plastics in the future and can be hence used to manufacture products with soaring demand owing to Covid-19.
3. Suitable disposal techniques
There is only a limit to earth’s waste handling capacity, and waiting for the threshold sure isn’t the wisest option to pursue. The concept of circular economy is the way forward where we aim at reducing as much waste generation as possible by inculcating recyclability within the design of a product. Majority of plastic in use today is recycled mechanically. Mechanical recycling however has limitations in case of coloured, multi layered or mix material plastics. For such cases the option of chemical recycling can be used, a process whose aim is to recover the basic building blocks of polymer. Chemical recycling seems to fill the short falls of mechanical recycling, although it has not been commercialized on a larger scale. In case recycling is not a profitable or feasible option only then should the option of incineration come into picture.
Lessons to be learnt
The most important lesson from this pandemic is the unpreparedness of our infrastructure to handle such emergencies. We have however couple of options available to alleviate the current situation and prepare for the next one. Replacing single use plastics with reusable materials as much as possible should be the main priority. Suitable methods are already available for disinfecting and sterilizing the reusable materials such as PPE kits. Reusable materials awareness among the masses regarding the unnecessary use of plastic products out of paranoia needs to be handled with relaying appropriate information. Replacing conventional plastic with bio-plastics is a promising scenario to retain the properties of the product with added benefit of reduced environmental impact. In case when reusability is not possible, disposal techniques need to be chosen accordingly depending upon the type of waste material, amount and cost involved. Incineration is the best method for disposing large volumes of waste, where as physical or chemical disinfection can be used for smaller amounts . This is also an appropriate time to realize the menace the increasing plastic pile is creating for our country and hence should be seen as an opportunity to invest in waste-to-energy technology. In the long run, we need to promote circular economy in India in preparation of the next emergency. Recyclability should be built in design and manufacturers need to take charge of extended producer responsibility as well, wherein the product is designed keeping the entire life cycle cost in mind. Indian culture already allows the space to reuse and recycle materials at home informally, which we need to promote more extensively. It is now evident more than ever that the synergy between government policies, business operations and citizens’ behavior is essential for effective crisis management, as well as sustainable development for all.
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