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The devastating impact of COVID-19 has generated a surge in plastic waste. Heightened demand for face masks, disposable safety gloves, and single-use plastic bags has demonstrated a new dependency on plastic. Let’s face it; plastic has played a pivotal role in our safety during this pandemic. Health and cross-contamination concerns have taken precedence, pushing environmental issues to the bottom of our priorities. Plastics are undeniably a key environmental concern, but with everything going on around us, protecting our health outweighs the consequences of plastic waste. What you may not realize is plastic waste may potentially be limiting our ability to get back to “normal.”
Until recently, plastic leakage resulting from COVID-19 has only been discussed in terms of environmental impact. The Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine (CEBM) published an article this month confirming the detection of COVID-19 in wastewater in Australia. Landfills are the final repository for most of our plastic waste. The dissolved or suspended material resulting from the decomposition of landfill waste produces leachate that can be absorbed in the surrounding groundwater.
Even when leachate is properly transported to an approved facility for disposal, wastewater treatment facilities are not designed to remove plastic produced leachates. Wastewater treatment plants are a significant contributor to the release of plastic into our waterways. While further research is needed to develop the concept of the study presented by CEBM, it does provide an opportunity to open a discussion around the handling of plastic waste during COVID-19.
COVID-19 and Water Treatment
Let us first clarify that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) does have established treatment regulations for public water systems that prevent waterborne pathogens and viruses like COVID-19 from contaminating our drinking water. The World Health Organization (WHO) has also indicated “there is no evidence to date that the COVID-19 virus has been transmitted via sewerage systems with or without wastewater treatment.” Wastewater-Based Epidemiology is a complementary approach by epidemiologists to monitor current infectious diseases and acts as an early warning system for disease outbreaks through wastewater surveillance.
Detecting COVID-19 in wastewater affords us a chance to look at potential vulnerabilities in our dependency on plastic. Exposure to contaminants like plastic leachates has been linked with severe adverse health outcomes such as endocrine disruption, impaired immunity, cancers, congenital disabilities, developmental and reproductive effects. COVID-19 has altered the way we think and live, so it is vital to understand the evolution of the disease and any possible connections to reduce our exposure.
COVID-19 Prevention and Plastics
“Coronavirus” refers to a group of zoonotic viruses recognized by the spikey projection on their surface that resembles crowns, or corona meaning “crown” in Latin. COVID-19 has about a 1.38% to 3.4% “case fatality rate” (CFR) compared to SARS (9.6%) or MERS (34.3%). The lower the fatality rate means a higher chance the virus can transmit itself before showing symptoms. This makes COVID-19 the most contagious of the three most severe coronaviruses humans have contracted since the outbreak of the influenza pandemic over a century ago. Thousands of people with either no symptoms or very mild symptoms can spread COVID-19 unaware they are even infected.
Countries all over the world have implemented self-quarantine and social distancing measures to stop the spread of COVID-19. In places where measures are slowly being lifted, we see spikes in COVID-19 cases. Until there is a viable vaccine, we all need to do our part to stop the spread of the virus. This means the continued use of face masks, disposable safety gloves, and single-use plastic bags.
Face masks help prevent respiratory droplets from traveling into the air and onto other people when a person wearing a face mask coughs, sneezes, talks, or raises their voice. The three common varieties currently used are the N95 respirator, surgical, and the cloth mask. N95 respirator masks are certified by the CDC and are designed to filter 95 percent of airborne particles. Surgical masks are regulated under FDA 21 CFR 878.4040 and do not provide complete protection because of the loose fit between the surface of the mask and the face. N95 respirator and surgical masks consist of polypropylene, a widely produced plastic. UK researchers have determined that if everyone in the UK started using disposable masks daily, it would create over 92 million pounds of plastic waste per year. That is just in the UK, alone. Furthermore, the CDC’s current recommendation is that the general public wears cloth face masks and reserve supplies of the N95 respirator and surgical masks for healthcare workers and first responders. Cloth face masks help slow the spread of COVID-19 and help keep people who may unknowingly have the virus from transmitting it to others. Face masks will only make a difference if they are worn correctly and frequently. They will also not prevent the spread of COVID-19 if other precautionary measures are not taken.
Another item people are using for protection against COVID-19 is the disposable safety gloves. Disposable gloves come in several different material types like nitrile, latex, and vinyl. Clinical studies have proven in simulated trials that disposable gloves can degrade and lose their integrity within minutes of use. WHO recommends that any items that could be contaminated with COVID-19 be discarded immediately in a garbage bin with a lid. Disposable gloves get thrown in the trash and ultimately end up in a landfill. Just like N95 respirator and surgical masks, the CDC does not recommend that the general public wear disposable safety gloves. Washing your hands with soap and water or using a hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol after you have been in a public place or touched a surface that may be frequently touched by other people will prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Single-Use Plastic Bags
Many retailers banned the use of reusable or paper bags believing these actions were necessary to protect the health of front-line workers who continue to check out groceries, collect trash, and sort through mounds of recycling. This was a major setback for environmentalists as many cities began delaying or lifting bans on single-use plastic bags as a result of hygiene fears. Why this decision was made is still not clear, as there is no evidence that single-use plastic bags reduce the spread of COVID-19. Of all the surface areas, plastic has the highest COVID-19 life expectancy (see fig. 1 & 2). Furthermore, reusable bags can be easily disinfected.
We are more likely to transmit COVID-19 from setting our purses in a shopping cart or setting it down on the counter at checkout than from reusable or paper bags. I bet you didn’t think about that one? Keep those purses at home and transfer your sanitized contents to a washable bag to allow for additional proper sanitization when you return home.
Fig. 1. Lifespan of COVID-19 in the environment (Refs upenn.edu)
Fig. 2. Lifespan of COVID-19 in the environment (Refs healthfocus.usa)
Self-quarantine and social distancing measures will become a permanent part of our lives if we do not take additional steps to stop the spread of COVID-19. Waiting for a vaccine for a virus whose genome mutates 24 times each year or twice per month is not the solution. Following CDC Guidelines is crucial to our safety and reducing the spread of COVID-19. We can protect ourselves and our loved ones without producing additional plastic waste. In this time of uncertainty, it feels incredibly surreal to request a call to action to reduce plastic waste. Until further research provides a better understanding of how COVID-19 affects the world we live in, we have to consider how disposable plastic waste could extend our ability to get back to “normal.”
Join us and help reduce plastic use!
The Plastic Free Ecochallenge is a 31-day, global challenge to reduce and refuse single-use plastics. As they explain on their website, "throughout the Ecochallenge, share your progress, success, and reflections with fellow Ecochallengers, all while earning points for completed actions."
Join the ACHS Ecochallenge Team and help us earn points throughout the month! If our ACHS Team scores 10,000 points in the Ecochallenge through completing sustainable actions, the college will donate $1,000 to a local, sustainable, inclusive organization that represents ACHS values: Mudbone Grown.
Disclosure of Material Connection: This blog may contain affiliate links. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.
Disclaimer: This article is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to treat, diagnose, cure, or prevent disease. This article has not been reviewed by the FDA. Always consult with your primary care physician or naturopathic doctor before making any significant changes to your health and wellness routine.
About American College of Healthcare Sciences
American College founded in 1978, is a fully online accredited institute of higher education specializing in holistic health. Based in Portland, OR; our goal is to make research-driven and science-based holistic health education taught by industry-leading experts accessible to anyone anywhere while still giving students a hands-on experiential learning experience like a traditional college and a strong sense of community, school pride and student bond.
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When a person enrolls as ACHS, it is vitally important that they graduate with tools they need to forge their own holistic and sustainable missions, build up their communities confidently and changing the face of healthcare with knowledge.
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