Author: Steve Groom
Today, wearing plastic gloves and masks whenever we leave the house and using bottles of hand sanitiser regularly has become totally normal. But at what cost?
We are painfully aware that the planet is suffering under the human use of natural resources and the waste that we dump on our land and in our oceans – when it was announced that microplastic ingested by fish was recorded all over the world, it confirmed that we’d finally abused the entire span of our oceans. It seemed that the amount of plastic waste had finally pricked our climate consciousness. We saw marches and protests, and global conferences and governmental commitments in response, and then – Coronavirus hit.
The human race was forced to face one of the most serious pandemics of modern times. Our primary instinct to survive kicked in and we locked down, social distanced and introduced the use of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE).
Sadly, in an instant, the important climate agenda was pushed into the background and the commitments to halt the damage to our planet returned to being a luxury rather than a necessity.
The disposable masks, gloves, aprons, hand sanitiser bottles, wipes and all manner of cleaning product containers have increased exponentially, and the planet is once again coping with excess human waste.
I think you’ll all agree that the reduction of car and air travel made a noticeable difference to the environment, the quality of air in our cities, the growth of plants even in our own back gardens, and the clarity of our rivers and seas. In Venice, locals enjoyed seeing fish in the canals instead of just muddy water churned up by human activity.
However, once we started returning to “normality”, the level of pollution rose in line with the activity. The pendulum delicately swings between healing and destroying our home, doesn’t it?
Matt Hancock, the UK Health Secretary, put protective measures in place for our valuable NHS and announced that all workers (regardless of their roles) were to wear face masks when at work. BUT – these was single use, disposable face masks. Had he already abandoned the Governments prior commitment to introduce measures to cut down on the amount of single use plastics and products we consume? Was there really no other alternative?
Let’s look at this a different way. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), producing 1 gram of plastic costs 1 gram of CO2. And with a mask weighing an average of 2 grams, the production of a weeks supply of masks for the NHS is just short of 50 million grams, or 99.77 imperial tons of CO2 per week– or to put a different perspective on it, the same CO2 emissions as one passenger taking 5 months’ worth of daily flights from Heathrow to New York!
What about gloves? Well, that’s not a whole lot better…
Let’s assume only half of the 880,000 NHS workers need to wear gloves. The average used by each staff member per day will still probably exceed 10 pair, right? Satisfying this clinical requirement will mean that the NHS will get through 61.6 million single gloves per week!
With a glove averaging 1 gram, it still puts a CO2 burden on our planet of 120 imperial tons. Want to know what 120 imperial tons looks like? Next time you see one of the new Transport for London Routmaster2 buses – imagine 8 of those. That’s about 120 imperial tons.
And that’s just gloves and face masks alone. We haven’t even started thinking about all of the level 3 PPE being used, the face shields and gowns, or the use of PPE by care home and other care workers in the community. And then there’s consumption by businesses, and private consumption in addition to these figures…
Without a doubt, the response from our health care workers has been amazing, and a true inspiration to everyone as to how to dig deep and maintain core values and principles through the toughest of times.
It’s time for those in power to do the same – they need to think about what they are advocating and keep prior commitments in mind when facing current challenges.
As the immediate threat begins to clear, the ongoing threat of climate change slowly comes back into focus and we must now remember our commitments to reducing waste wherever we can.