COVID-19 has been the harbinger of sweeping changes in our lives. Since the lockdown, a new habit has been formed at my residence, that of not only washing our hands, but also washing and sanitising each and every article that has been brought from outside, including vegetables, fruits and anything that comes in a plastic packet.
In an age wherein our energies are focused on surviving the pandemic without contracting the virus, and prioritising our mental and physical health, the issue of waste management surely takes a backseat. However, ignoring this issue does not make the problem go away.
The virus has changed the way we perceive the world and other human beings. There is a general sense of mistrust among all of us, wherein even a cough or sneeze in the middle of a grocery shopping trip can make us fear for our lives. In such a scenario, the human mind looks for a safe haven — in this case, products coming out of sterilised, sanitised plastic packaging.
The lockdown has certainly made me think of how much plastic waste I am generating. All our daily essentials, snacks, everything comes packed in plastic. All of us are wary of touching anything, afraid of catching the virus from even a chips packet. Due to this attitude, the usage of plastic worldwide has reached unprecedented levels. In such a situation, how do we save ourselves from drowning in our own plastic pollution, while also averting the virus?
The first step of solving any problem is to acknowledge it, and that’s the approach I preferred while I made a note of all the plastic packaging lying around in my house. According to a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, the virus can stay on a plastic surface for up to 72 hours, making me think of alternatives to combat this issue.
The first step was to reduce the consumption of materials packed in multi-layered packaging. These include chips, snacks, chocolates etc. Even if we are consuming them, make sure to wash them and keep them aside for some time, so as to not come in contact with the virus.
Alternative methods of disposal can also be tried, especially in the case of taking care of multi-layered plastic packaging. Making an Eco Brick can come to our rescue in such a case. An ecobrick is a reusable building block created by packing clean and dry used plastic into a plastic bottle to a set density.
Ecobricks enable us to take personal responsibility of our plastic consumption. Making an eco brick requires absolutely no capital, and helps in diverting a share of plastic packaging away from landfills. The resultant eco brick can be used to make a variety of furniture and infrastructure.
Plastic is not only found in food packaging, but also used for making masks and other PPE equipment. For navigating COVID-19, masks have been made compulsory for every individual. Reusing and washing masks made out of synthetic fibre releases a huge amount of microplastics in the water, which eventually reaches rivers and oceans, and then back to our bodies through a variety of sources. Using cloth masks or ones made out of cotton can be another alternative to restrict this movement of microplastics.
In the end, behaviour change is the need of the hour. A shift in the consumerist attitude is the likely solution. For far too long, we have only taken and extracted resources from nature. Now, nature is winning and locking us in our own homes. Maybe it is a chance for us to think about cleaning up our act, of putting new systems in place that are built on the foundation of social justice, not only for fellow human beings but also for nature.
It is our chance to emphasise our needs more than our wants, and innovate and remain ambitious, without being vicious. But first and foremost, we must be mindful of the plastic we use and throw, and where it end up. Because for far too long, we have neglected our planet’s health, and now the bill is due.
About the author: Pooja Moitra is a consultant at Chintan Environmental Research and Action Group.