Single use plastic: a Covid-19 hero with devastating environmental consequences

A protective mask discarded on a beach. EFE
A protective mask discarded on a beach. EFE
  • Olive oil companies have seen a huge increase in demand for individual sachets and discarded PPE has become a blight on the landscape

Local environmental groups have warned of the increase in single-use plastic and other waste as a result of the Covid-19 crisis.

Events like beach and river cleanups, which were gathering momentum across the province in 2019, have not gone ahead due to the restrictions. However, with the obligatory use of masks, and gloves as well in some places such as supermarkets, protective equipment discarded on the streets, beaches and countryside, has become an all too common sight.

While the Covid-19 lockdown was good news for pollution levels, with Spanish environmental organisation, Ecologistas en Acción reporting a 55 per cent drop in levels in urban air pollution in the second half of March, the pandemic spells disaster for levels of plastic and other waste.

While nobody could dispute the need for personal protection against the virus, a World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) report stated, "if just one per cent of masks are disposed of incorrectly and dispersed in nature this would result in as many as 10 million masks per month polluting the environment."

As PPE, which has the added risk that it is potentially contaminated with the virus, cannot be recycled, it should be incinerated. Spain's ministry for Health released a protocol on 19 March for disposing of masks, gloves and other garments which may have come into contact with the virus. The protocol stated that it must be placed into a separate bag and put into the grey organic bin, not the yellow plastics one and this should apply to masks and gloves.

Single use plastic

Another issue which has resurfaced since the relaxing of restriction is the use of single-use plastics.

According to Antonio Pérez, manager of Aceites Málaga, the company has seen a "boom" in demand for individual sachets of olive oil. The advice from health authorities in Spain is that bars and restaurants should not use self-service oil and vinegar bottles and instead either provide single use sachets or only provide condiments upon request.

Aceites el Niño told SUR that before coronavirus, only 0.8 per cent of their sales were individual sachets of oil, whereas they now account for eight per cent.

Another consequence of the pandemic has been falling crude oil prices, making 'virgin', or new plastic, cheaper to buy than its recycled alternative.

According to Natasha Wegloop, who is the founder of Mi Moana beach cleanup project in Mijas Costa, "People are afraid of the virus." Her view concurs with the website that "many manufacturers prefer to buy new, as there's an assumption that new is better".

With the European Union Single Use Plastics (SUP) directive due to be enforced in member states in 2021, there have been petitions from the plastics industry to delay it. However, the EU has responded to the industry to say it has "no plans" to postpone the law and stressed that it does not cover PPE.

On 2 June 2020 Spain's Environment ministry gave the green light to a draft plan to write the EU SUP directive into national law, with objectives to achieve a circular economy, manage waste better and reduce pollution.

For Wegloop, it feels like all the "good work" to educate people on recycling, reducing and reusing has "been undone" and that "we will have to start all over again".

The good news is that Mi Moana has permission from Mijas town hall to organise a beach cleanup in July on El Chaparral beach and Ann Jenkins from Playa Patrol in La Herradura is confident that she will be able to start up again in late summer. "I don't know what the effect of Covid-19 will be on our oceans, but I am positive that people will adapt again when this is all over," Wegloop concludes.