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Covid essentials adding to plastic waste

UPDATED ON SEP 28, 2020 04:59 PM IST

Covid-19 has pushed up the sale and use of hand sanitisers exponentially and you don’t need much imagination to think of the amount of plastic waste that the empty containers are generating. And that’s not the only impact of Covid- 19 on the environment. With increased hand washing, our consumption of hand soap in plastic dispensers has gone up substantially, thereby increasing the quantum of plastic containers and plastic refill pouches going into trash cans and subsequently to our landfills and water bodies.

That’s not all. Increased hand washing and sanitising has robbed our hands of moisture and we are, therefore, buying more moisturisers to overcome the dryness -- so more plastic trash. Worse, the pandemic has made us so nervous that we are buying a variety of power cleaning liquids– for the kitchen, for the floors, for the bathrooms, for the laundry and for sanitising packages. All claiming to kill 99.9 per cent of germs and many of them packaged in plastic trigger sprayers.

Another popular item of purchase is the vegetable and fruit cleaner, also filled in plastic bottles. Just think of the amount of plastic debris created from these products, besides the additional amount of chemicals being released into the environment by all these cleaning agents.

Then there’s the waste generated by plastic gloves, personal protection equipment and the disposable masks by the general public (this is besides the huge quantities of medical waste coming out of hospitals). Increased online shopping in these Covid times is also resulting in larger volumes of plastic waste, particularly bubble wrap.

Un-Plastic Collective, a voluntary multi stakeholder initiative to eliminate plastic pollution and move towards a circular economy, had estimated recently that India generates 9.4 million tones of plastic waste annually , of which 40% uncollected. There are no estimates as yet on the increase in plastic waste as a consequence of Covid-19, but the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development estimates that about 75% of the plastic generated on account of the world pandemic will become plastic waste, clogging landfills and floating in water bodies around the world. A highly worrisome scenario.

Coming back to sanitisers and cleaners, I checked a number of these containers to see if there is any information on whether the containers are recyclable and the manufacturer takes responsibility for collecting and recycling them or whether they are compostable. I saw no information whatsoever.

In fact a look at the wide range of fast moving consumer goods on shop shelves also makes you realise how over the years, our consumption patterns have changed, adding substantially to the plastic waste that we generate. The shift from bathing bars or soap cakes to body washes, hand washes and face washes, from shikakai powder or soapnut powder to shampoos and conditioners, from utensil and laundry washing bars and powders to liquid cleaners and fabric softeners, from an all purpose toilet cleaner to a variety of them for different surfaces, have all stepped up the volume of plastic containers.

Covid-19 and the increased generation of plastic waste should make us scrutinise our purchases once again from the point of view of their environmental impact . We obviously cannot do away with alcohol-based hand sanitisers for now, but we can certainly review our choices vis-à-vis household cleaning products and toiletries, eliminate non-essentials and opt as much as possible for products made from natural substances rather than harsh chemicals.

More important, we must choose products of only those manufacturers who take these measures in respect of their packaging: (a) use non-plastic packaging or (b) use compostable packaging or (c) collect and process or recycle their containers. There are also manufacturers who are bringing out concentrated or compressed versions of their product to bring down their weight and sell them in eco-friendly packages. Remember, it is only consumer preference and demand that will promote these changes in manufacturing.

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