Hi Anja, hope you’re doing well, this is Brooke from North Carolina.
Hi Anja, this is Wade Roush from the Soonish Podcast.
Hi Anja, this is Tridibesh recording for your upcoming episode, Plastisphere podcast about Covid-19 and its impact on plastic industry and society’s views and use of plastics.
Welcome to the Plastisphere, the podcast on plastics, people, and the planet. My name is Anja Krieger. For this episode, I’ve tried something new: I’ve asked listeners, researchers and podcasters to send me audio comments on what is happening right now during the pandemic. And I received some really interesting replies. In this episode, you’ll hear some of the audio messages that arrived in my inbox the past weeks.
Just a heads-up: This is a developing crisis and lots of things are still unknown about the corona virus. So don’t expect definite answers. Also, please don’t take any of the following as medical advice – I’m a journalist, and not a doctor, so I cannot provide that. But I hope to give you some food for thought in the next half hour. Like, how does the new corona virus impact the discussion around plastics and plastic pollution, and what are the issues we need to follow while navigating through this crisis?
To start with, I’d like to share a story from Canada with you. It was sent to me by Justine Ammendolia, on April 15, 2020. Justine is a marine biologist working for the Canadian Ocean Literacy Coalition.
Music – Valantis by Blue Dot Sessions
I moved back to Toronto. I originally grew up here, but I moved back in early December. And I was really curious with my new-found love of plastics that I’ve developed over the past five years as a researcher, to kind of apply my knowledge back in my home town. And unfortunately, I was planning on doing a massive debris audit or garbage audit around my community to actually map out the different types of garbage that occurred – but because of Canadian winters, I was actually prohibited from doing that just because the amount of snow outside. So I was waiting for spring to do this massive baseline to understand what kind of garbage was there. And long story short, Covid happens, so unfortunately, I couldn’t actually go out and do this.
With the pandemic, it’s become so much harder to do pretty much anything. And that includes the kind of research Justine wanted to do. She had planned a fieldtrip to Alaska to study plastic ingestion in seabirds, and was going to raise attention on plastic pollution research with the National Geographic Society. With the restrictions on movement and gatherings, all of her plans for spring and summer were canceled or postponed. While she couldn’t do her waste audit, she noticed new types of garbage on the streets of Toronto and she started to record them.
Ever since Covid happened several weeks ago, I’ve been seeing a relatively large uptick in plastic protective equipment, PPE, things that range from, you know, disposable gloves to disposable facial masks all the way to those disinfectant wipes and including the packaging from that. And over the course of the past months, every time I’ve been going out for my one activity a day, the exercise that’s permitted by the government, I’ve been noting what kinds of plastics are scattered throughout my community within a ten-block radius.
And I’ve been using the Citizen Science app – Marine Debris Tracker, which is great because as a mobile app, all you have to do is click the items that you’re finding, and it takes your GPS coordinates and all this collection information – and again, over the course of the past months, I’ve maybe picked up about 65 items in a very, very, very small area of Toronto – I have to emphasize that because I don’t live downtown, I don’t live in extremely high-density housing. So, you know, these 65 items have been eyebrow-raising in the sense that you know, they’re ending up in places where they really shouldn’t be.
One of the main spots that I have been observing, I guess, abundances of these items – and you know, I wasn’t able to actually count the full capacity – was in grocery stores parking lots. And what was interesting about this, in one of our excursions to the supermarket – like I am sure everyone else is experiencing right now, it’s kind of your expedition of the month – you know, going into this grocery store, I just noticed gloves scattered throughout the parking lot. And we’re talking dozens of them, all different colors, and they’re blowing about, because the supermarket’s located on a hill, it’s really windy.
Sound of wind – CC by TRP
And what really raised my eyebrows wasn’t the gloves in the parking lot. It was the ones that were left over in the carts, employees must have gathered them and put them there. But it was literally dozens within these carts. And I’m looking to the fringes of the parking lot, there’s all these bushes and trees that act as a barrier more or less to the river, and what was absolutely heart-breaking for me was to see all these gloves, and disinfectant wipes and different PPEs, items that were lining the bushes as kind of the last form of defense before entering the river system.
Music – Two Dollar Token by Blue Dot Sessions
As a biologist and environmental scientist, seeing this type of pollution happen so unnecessarily, when there were readily available garbage cans, lining the parking lot, really was devastating for me – and especially seeing a creek that’s already at high capacity because there are quite a bit of houses and apartments nearby – it just really was kind of a wake-up call to this whole new form of debris that we’re going to be encountering in our environment.
And that’s not to say PPE is a villain or you know, it’s something that we should ban, I’m far from that, I think they’re very life-saving and highly needed and necessary items in our society today. I just think that, you know, within a medical context, where they are disposed of properly and it’s made sure that these items go directly into the garbage, that’s acceptable, but within the context of consumer use, I’m seeing in my area at least that I can speak to is just the sheer disregard of their disposal.
And this was actually picked up already by the mayor of the city, John Tory of Toronto, and he made the announcement to ask citizens to properly dispose of these items.
On April 7, mayor John Tory said that littering PPEs poses a risk to the health of others, and he reminded the public that it can result in a hefty fine. And Justine’s message wasn’t the only one I got on this new kind of trash. Another one came from Wade Roush, the creator of the Soonish podcast.
One thing I am noticing here in Boston, Massachusetts, is a lot more litter in the form of latex medical gloves. People just peeling them off their hands and leaving them on the ground for some reason.
Music – Aourourou by Blue Dot Sessions
In Miami, so many gloves littered the streets at the end of March, that resident Maria Algarra decided to do something. She created the social media hashtag #TheGloveChallenge, asking people to send in photos. She received pictures of more than 1,800 littered gloves from New York, Italy, Spain, Germany and New Zealand.
Around the world, people use personal protective equipment now, and often for very good reasons. Especially those working in situations where they meet many others need them now for their protection. I got a message about this from Brooke Bauman. She’s an environmental science student in North Carolina and host of the Guilty Plastics podcast.
So I had just flown into the Houston airport, and I was kind of getting settled in and hungry, so I was looking for a bite to eat. So I went into a little convenient store in the airport, and I was starting to pick out my things and walked up to the register and started chatting with the woman working there. And she was telling me about her worries while working this job at this moment in time.
So she was worried that by working this job she was putting her son and herself in danger of being exposed to the virus. She was having different people coming from various places around the world, and she had no idea where they’d been – and the past some people had actually coughed directly on her or in her direction without any care for her to protect her. So she had said that she had take some pretty drastic measures on her own without any direction from her managers. And those measures were to use a glove for each exchange that she had with a customer.
And she had mentioned that she was worried about the waste that this was creating. But ultimately at this moment it was most important for her to protect herself and her son back home.
That’s so justified. Many of us are all struggling now to understand how best to protect ourselves, our loved ones, but also the strangers we meet. People working in essential jobs are at a greater risk – not only in hospitals. They’re doing such important work, making sure that our basic needs are still met – that we can still go shopping, or take the bus. They need to be able to feel safe, just like everyone else.
I read that the World Health Organization says that washing hands regularly offers more protection than wearing rubber gloves. But in some situations, washing hands might not be possible. For example, when you’re the only employee working in a little shop.
While the world consumption of gloves, masks and other protective equipment has skyrocketed, we need to ensure that they don’t pollute the environment. But this is happening right now. Gary Stokes of OceansAsia, an NGO based in Hong Kong, posted a video online on February 28. He was standing on a remote beach, holding up almost two dozen masks.
So we’re out here on the Soko’s islands and obviously as you can see behind, we have enough trash out here to last an eternity, we’re doing our plastic survey that we do every month, and now we have this to content with. We have the coronavirus, and all these masks are washing now up on the beaches.
In Hong Kong, people had started using masks on a massive scale. On a stretch of beach just a hundred meters long, Gary and his team found 70 masks. This was two months ago. He just posted an update on Facebook, saying “5 Mins on a new beach, masks still everywhere”. I also got a message from Sedat Gündoğdu, who’s lives in Turkey. He’s a marine biologist and a plastic pollution researcher…
…and he sent me this note on April 19:
The other day I went to shop at the market, and I saw almost dozen of this masks and gloves on the ground. It was incredible!
But there are alternatives to single-use. There are reusable masks made of cloth which can be washed in hot water. Sedat also told me that the Turkish government made new regulations after the Covid-19 outbreak. One March 27, the news site Hürriyet reported that, I quote “fresh vegetables and fruits sold unpackaged in marketplaces must be packaged by the sellers, avoiding customer contact with the items.”
Not only fruits and vegetables, but also bread must be sold in plastic bags. Can you imagine that even big plastic water gallons are now sold in plastic bags. It’s crazy. You know what’s their explanation for all these crazy things? Hygiene! Unbelievable.
Plastics have long been touted as more hygienic. In the fight against the coronavirus, plastic gloves, masks and gowns play an important role. But is it really helpful to pack everything in even more plastic packaging now?
It looks like plastic as a material does not have an advantage. In a recent study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, scientists evaluated the stability of the virus. They found that it can remain viable on plastic for several days, just like on stainless steel. Interestingly, it was less stable on cardboard. It’s still unknown to what extend people really get infected by touching surfaces, and the virus disintegrates with time.
But to be safe, the World Health Organization advises to follow some simple rules: Avoid touching the eyes, mouth and nose, clean any surface on which the virus could linger with a common household disinfectant, and clean or wash your hands with an alcohol-based hand rub or soap and water.
Sound of faucet
Jacqui Kidman follows these rules when she goes shopping in the Bayside suburbs of Melbourne these days. She’s one of the hosts of the Sustainable You podcast, she and sent me this message on April 15.
I still feel very comfortable to take my own containers, I wash my hands before I pick them up, and I wash my hands as soon as I get back home, that’s just a practice that we have in our household sort of very religiously now.
I also received a message from Jessica Varner. She’s a researcher writing a Phd in material history at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT. Jessica lives out in the countryside of Connecticut. She told me that she still uses her reusable bags for her trips to the supermarket.
We still use reusable bags. It’s something that we’ve come to know and enjoy the practice, so we continue to do it. We just are required to bag our own at the end, and we go about our way. We come home, we disinfect as recommended by the CDC both our reusable bags and the groceries that come home with us. And for us it’s the same, plastic bags or paper bags that we get at the store in our mind are no safer or no better than our reusable bags from home.
Another message I got came from Susanne Brander on April 6. She’s an assistant professor and ecotoxicologist at Oregon State University.
Susanne has been thinking about the process of filling her reusable containers. That scoop in the shop that’s touched by so many people over the course of the day.
I try the best I can to limit my family’s plastic consumption and over the past five or so years I’ve gotten really serious about trying to buy everything in bulk, from oil to spices to shampoo to conditioner to even hand soap – and of course I live in a town in Oregon where that’s easy to do under normal circumstances, and now that we are all sheltering in place and are afraid to touch things in stores, I’ve stopped buying in bulk.
And I feel guilty about that but when it comes to trying to best protect my kids and my family from the potential for catching Covid or for passing that one to more susceptible people, it, you know, safety comes first. And it’s really unfortunate. And all I can think is that if people like me feel like they’re having to increase their plastic consumption during a time like this, I can imagine, you know, how much it’s affecting people in general, especially those that don’t think about it on a daily basis like someone who does research on it does.
There are so many things to consider now. And we don’t even know everything about the virus yet. For me, shopping has become a pretty exhausting activity. An interview on German radio with a psychologist helped me better understand why. She explained that it’s a kind of moral exhaustion, that normal activities like going to the supermarket become so complicated. Before Covid-19, I wouldn’t have thought twice about handing my reusable fruit and veggie bags to the vendor at the market. Now I don’t feel comfortable doing it anymore. I do wash all my bags after each trip to the market, but the vendor can’t know that. And I could still contaminate them, right? So confusing.
Music – Alum Drum Solo by Blue Dot Sessions
As the full scale and sweep of this pandemic was setting in on the East Coast of the United States, I was scrolling Twitter and was served up a promoted ad from PLASTICS US, a trade association. It featured a color photograph of a pile of plastic medical devices, I wasn’t sure what it was at the time. But I’ve since sent the photograph to a friend, an obstetrician, who thought it might be the small plastic connectors used to hook up IV tubing to meds.
I got this message from Rebecca Altman. She’s an environmental sociologist writing a book on our relationship with plastics.
Rebecca sent me a screenshot of this ad she got on March 21st. What struck her was the copy. It was a quote from the president and CEO of the plastics association which said, I quote, “items such as IV bags and ventilator machines, which are of utmost importance right now, have components made of single-use plastics.”
I remember wondering, what’s going on here, what is this ad doing, why is it in my feed right now? And I remember wondering, are they using this moment to reframe and reposition single-use plastics? Which had come under increasing levels of public scrutiny in recent weeks and months. Did they not think that the public could understand that there are different kinds of single-use plastics, and that it’s possible to understand the importance of them now in this moment, given the way our current health system is set-up to use them, that we could understand they’re different somehow from a plastic shopping bag or a styrofoam cup or a water bottle.
Music – Cast in Wicker by Blue Dot Sessions
This ad came right at the time when the numbers of recorded infections started to rise steeply in the United States. Earlier in March, the PLASTICS association had sent a letter to the US Department of Health and Human Services. Their president asked them to, I quote “make a public statement on the health and safety benefits seen in single-use plastics” and to speak out against bans on single-use plastics as a public safety risk.
On March 26, the New York Times reported how the industry perceived Coronavirus as a chance to undo the plastic bag bans. The same day Greenpeace published a research brief that showed, I quote, “the ways the plastics industry is exploiting people’s fears around COVID-19”.
I also got a message from Sydney Harris. She works with the Product Stewardship Institute, an NGO promoting producer responsibility in the US.
They collaborate with environmental agencies as well as producers. Sydney told me about the increasing amount of lobbying she was seeing.
One of the things we’ve noticed during this outbreak of coronavirus is that many of our local and state government members are facing increasing pressure to reverse, delay, suspend or otherwise roll back waste reduction policies, for example bans on plastic bags, or on other single-use items.
Because of the virus, several states in the US have already lifted or delayed bans or fees on plastic and paper bags. Some have banned reusable bags. To record these impacts of Covid-19 on plastics policy in the U.S, Sydney and her team have created a digital tracker. You can find the link in the transcript of this episode.
So, we’ve seen this happening also at the local level and really all over the country. And the pressure is really coming from, primarily, the plastics industry in the name of public health.
Sydney worries that this might have serious long-term consequences.
So for example if consumers start seeing, you know, reusable bags as dirty or reusable coffee mugs as disease vectors, those kinds of social norms are very hard to undo – it took a really long time to get to where we were before the virus in terms of social acceptance of reusables.
I think it’s clear that some kind of sustainable re-use infrastructure that involves perhaps, you know, some kind of sanitization through a third party or other way of distributing reusable items that people can trust is going to be really critical in the future, because what we really want to make sure that we do is think ahead to how we can bounce back from this on the waste side of things.
Maybe we won’t even have to. At least that’s what Adam Minter suggests, the author of the book Junkyard Planet. In an opinion piece for Bloomberg he writes that the trend is already clear: Consumers want more sustainable packaging and the big companies have started to listen. So despite the pandemic, single-use plastics will continue to fade from the marketplace, he believes.
What’s interesting is that the recent rollbacks on single-use plastics, reusable bags and bottle deposits seem to be happening mainly in the United States. On the Marine Debris listserv I follow, people from Italy, Norway, the Netherlands, Indonesia and Australia said they hadn’t noticed any similar developments yet. The only other place I’ve heard rolling back plastics regulations is the United Kingdom. They just delayed their ban on plastic straws, stirrers and cotton buds.
In the meantime, the European Union dismissed industry calls to lift its bans on single-use plastics. They had received a letter from the European Plastic Converters, arguing that single-use plastics were more hygienic, similar to the one by the US plastics association.
We have not seen strong scientific evidence that would support this kind of pressure, so it’s something that we are thinking about critically. And one thing that we do know is that it’s really important, even in a time of crisis when it can be very difficult to consider the long-term implications of this kind of policy change. For example, even temporarily increasing the amount of disposable items used on a massive scale such as an entire US state or several – creates a lot more waste in the short term.
We already have a very strained and spread-thin waste system and recycling system that has been really struggling in recent years, for other reasons, and now even with reduced staffing due to the virus we are putting increasing strain on that system as we continue to put those workers at risk because they are of course essential workers.
Music – Headlights by Blue Dot Sessions
In terms of impact I see both short-term and long-term impacts.
Tridibesh Dey is working on a PhD in Anthropology at the University of Exeter in the UK. He’s doing research on the informal economies of plastic recycling in India. In his message, he told me how the corona crisis impacts the people he knows there.
With the governmental restrictions in place or the lockdown, self-employed waste pickers, plastic pickers are unable to go out on the street to pick plastics. Because as they are self-employed, they are not hired by any governmental agency or approved agency, which means that the patrolling police considered them as non-essential workers. So their movement and work is directly affected by this. A lot of them are daily earners. I mean we are talking about subsistence economies here. So this results in a direct loss in livelihood.
The second short-term impact is obviously more pathological in nature, because they work to collect discarded materials and often without any proper protective equipment, or PPE, this means there are various chances of infection. So, their health is at risk, they are vulnerable. So, these two kinds of challenges result in a situation where they are unable to work, they’re unable to earn their daily livelihood. This throws a lot of them into deep financial crisis.
I speak regularly with my former research informants and some of them tell me very horrible stories of suffering and starvation. And it is very difficult to hear these. And these are real accounts of people who are directly impacted in real time.
You might have listened to episode 3 of my podcast on the situation of waste pickers. They are the working poor who contribute greatly to waste management and recycling in countries around the world. Many of them are women.
Tridibesh says that his Indian informants are hit by two crises at once: The Covid-19 lockdown and the oil price crash over the recent months. As you might have heard, oil is at an all-time low. I received the message from Tridibesh on April 8. And after that, the value of oil dropped to a point where producers had to pay to sell their oil. Imagine that.
The low price of oil will affect the informal plastic recycling industry the most. And it is going to affect and throw into deep precarity the informal waste collectors, especially those that are self-employed, who are not employed by any civic authority, who just go out on the street on their own accord and pick plastics or whatever discarded stuff they can find and are able to sell these for a particular value at the end of the day.
With the oil price, this value drops so low that the waste pickers cannot sell their plastics anymore. Because most plastics are made from fossil fuels, and the price for new virgin polymers is bound to the oil price. If the oil price is low, newly produced plastic is cheap. And that means that recycling isn’t worth the effort anymore. This might result in a deep blow to the entire recycling industry, Tridibesh says.
The value that waste pickers would get after a day long walking around collecting different kinds of plastics, would be very low. The return that they would get for the same amount of work and effort would be very low, and it would just not suffice the daily running of households and the responsibilities that they have. So it just pushes these informal plastic pickers off the cliff I think and plunges them into very deep conditions of precarity and anxiety.
A lot of them are considering going back to the villages from which they came away many years ago, simply to escape the caste-based persecutions and all sorts of exploitation, lack of employment, lack of livelihood opportunity and such. So they might actually have to go back to the village and face a very bleak and uncertain future.
This is a difficult outlook for the many waste pickers that take care of a lot of the recycling in India. They work under precarious conditions even in normal times. The corona crisis and low oil price weakens them even more – and they are the backbone of the circular economies in India. I asked Tridibesh if there is something the civil society could do to support the waste workers during this crisis. He recommended two platforms that are providing food-kits to daily wage-earners in Ahmedabad. I’ll add the links to the notes and transcript of this episode, if you’d like to check them out:
- Manav Sadhna and CISHAA provide food-kits to daily wage-earners in Ahmedabad, India, in neighbourhoods involved in informal recycling industries
- Fundraiser by Aajeevika, a non-profit organization working to enhance the dignity and well-being of migrant worker communities in the informal economy
- Fundraiser by SEWA, one of the oldest organisations of women in informal work, and WIEGO’s partners in India
Music – Algea Trio by Blue Dot Sessions
There’s no doubt that the Corona crisis has ushered the world into difficult times. But it also holds a chance to learn from the unprecedented changes that we’re going through. Here’s what Merijn Tinga, the Plastic Soup Surfer, told me. He runs a small NGO in the Netherlands.
Our response to the Covid-19 is showing us that people easily grasp this relation between the constraints of their individual freedom opposed to that long-term freedom of society as a whole. And they are willing to sacrifice their individual freedom for that greater good, now that, you know, the danger is imminent.
When the pandemic started, country by country, city by city took drastic measures many of us had not imagined possible. All of a sudden everything changed, from work to transport and travel to the ways we interact. This isn’t to say that these measures are comfortable or without side-effects. But they seem necessary to solve this crisis. In the best case, we can learn from this to restructure our societies and tackle the other big challenges as well: Climate change, the extinction of species, inequality or plastic pollution.
It is a balance between individual freedom on one hand and the freedom of society as a whole on the other.
So let’s get through this crisis, but also keep our eyes open. The new corona virus dominates everything now. There’s a lot we can learn from this pandemic, and there’s a lot we need to take care of while it is happening. We can still prevent masks, gloves, wipes and other waste from entering the environment. We can support waste workers and policies that protect and support them. We can decide which plastic products we really need now, and we can still cut those that are unnecessary. We can fight for policies that protect people and the planet, as well as for infrastructure that supports public health. And most importantly, we can base this all on science and evidence, not lobbying and campaigns.
I understand that we may need to use plastic more than we usually do. And I think that makes sense because we are prioritizing the safety of our families and of our communities. So I am willing to not waste irrationally but I am willing to be a little bit more lenient at a time like this. However I don’t think we should backtrack that much and use this as an opportunity to repeal plastic bans. Personally, I would just like to see more studies that describe how viruses are transmitted on various surfaces so that we as consumers can be more informed about the best ways to transport groceries or other things like that.
Music – Plink by Dorian Roy
This was the Plastisphere with Justine Ammendolia, Wade Roush, Gary Stokes, Brooke Bauman, Sedat Gündoğdu, Jacqui Kidman, Susanne Brander, Rebecca Altman, Sydney Harris, Tridibesh Dey and Merijn Tinga. Thanks to all of them for contributing to this episode!
My name is Anja Krieger. I’m a freelance journalist publishing this independent podcast in the spirit of the gift economy. If you’d like to give back and support more episodes, go to plastisphere.earth/support and follow the links to Paypal, Patreon or RiffReporter. I’d be really grateful for any support you can afford.
The theme song is by Dorian Roy. All other tracks were produced by Blue Dot Sessions. I added some sounds of wind, recorded by TRP on freesound.org. For feedback on this episode, a big thank-you to Rebecca Altman, as well as Mendel Skulski and Marcy Trent Long, the hosts of two of my favorite environmental podcasts. Mendel is the co-host of Future Ecologies, and Marcy runs the Sustainable Asia series. Make sure to check out their shows!
If you want to read more about plastics in the corona crisis, go to the Plastisphere podcast website and find the transcript to this episode. I will include a list of resources, including videos, articles and podcasts connecting the dots between plastics and Covid-19.
If you want to peek into the future, listen to the latest episode of the Indisposable podcast. It features Tom Szaky, the founder of TerraCycle and LOOP which sells products in reusable containers.
The episode with ecotoxicologist Jane Muncke from the Food Packaging Forum, is also really informative!
If you like more updates, you can find me on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook as @PlastispherePod. If you have comments on any episode of the Plastisphere, write me an e-mail or, even better, start the voice memo app on your smartphone. Record a voice message for me and mail it to firstname.lastname@example.org. I love to hear your voices!
Hope to see you next time. Take care and stay well, wherever you are!