Turning the tide on the pandemic’s plastic waste in support of Sustainable Development Goal No. 12
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This is the fifth article in a series of stories on the work Wood is doing in partnership with the United Nations, NGOs, the private sector and governments to support the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Face masks are one of the most defining symbols of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, this iconic sign of our times is exacerbating another crisis: plastic pollution.

Globally, 129 billion face masks – mostly single-use masks made from plastic microfibers – are used every month as a preventive measure to stop the spread of the virus. Yet, the improper disposal of face masks coupled with ineffective waste management is leading to rising levels of marine debris. A growing number of discarded masks have washed up on the coasts of Hong Kong, France and the United Kingdom.

In February of 2020, OceansAsia, a Hong Kong-based marine conservation organisation, discovered dozens of masks on the shoreline of the Soko Islands. In the UK, the Marine Conservation Society found personal protective equipment (PPE) items on nearly 25% of beaches. Last June, France doubled fines for littering after photos of surgical masks and latex gloves in the Mediterranean seabed near Antibes surfaced on social media. OceansAsia estimated more than a billion masks entered the world’s oceans in 2020 alone – threatening marine life and critical ecosystems.

PPE is not the only form of pandemic-generated waste. Lockdowns and health concerns prompted by the outbreak have triggered the increased demand and production of disposable plastic. To reduce the chance of virus transmission, many restaurants and retailers have temporarily prohibited reusable products, becoming more reliant on single-use plastic bags and food containers. A recent survey of consumers in 23 countries showed increases of 43% in food waste and 53% in plastic packaging since the start of the pandemic.

The rapid surge in single-use plastics caused several nations to push back on efforts to ban its production which is expected to increase by 40% over the next decade. In the UK, the launch of a national deposit return system for plastic bottles had to be postponed from its initial start date of April 2020 to July 2022.

In alignment with the UN’s SDG No. 12 to ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns, the European Union (EU) has been fighting for years to ban single-use plastic items to protect the environment, reduce risks to human health and create a more sustainable future. On 3 July 2021, the Directive on Single-Use Plastics took effect in the EU, barring specific products such as plates, straws, cutlery, cotton buds, balloon sticks, food and beverage containers made of expanded polystyrene and all items composed of oxo-degradable plastic from being placed on the market.

Wood partnered with several other organisations to support the European Commission in the implementation of the directive, playing a role in developing key guidelines and driving extensive engagement with stakeholder groups from across the plastics value chain in Europe and Member States. Over the years, we have also advised government institutions and helped private and public sector organisations to design and evaluate government policy to minimise plastic pollution, manage material inputs across value chains, reduce waste and its impact, optimise resource efficiency, and explore opportunities in a circular economy.

Decreasing the production of plastics and improving solid waste management is crucial to realising a net-zero future. Created from fossil fuels, the refinement of plastic emits an additional 184 to 213 million metric tons of greenhouse gases annually. By the assessment of policy, standards and guidance around plastics production, use and recyclability through a circular approach, Wood is enabling more resilient environments and unlocking solutions to cut carbon emissions.

Click here to join our session Collaborating with the UN to Achieve a Sustainable Future at the Wood House during COP26 on Monday, November 8 from 9 am to 2 pm BST.

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