The coronavirus has worsened the amount of plastic polluting the world’s oceans.
According to Dave Ford, founder of the environmental literacy organization SoulBuffalo and the Ocean Plastics Leadership Network, a group that brings activists and industry together to develop solutions to plastic pollution in the oceans.
Because of the coronavirus, there is an “environmental silver streak” – carbon emissions have been reduced by more than 4%, many wildlife markets around the world have closed, and air quality has improved slightly in some places, says Ford.
Thanks to an increase in pandemic-induced, non-recyclable materials like removable plastic containers and masks, 30% more litter has crept into our oceans, he notes.
“129 billion face masks are produced every month – enough to cover the entire country of Switzerland with face masks by the end of this year if the trends continue,” he says. “And a lot of these masks end up in the water.”
The masks look like jellyfish – that is, food – to turtles and other wildlife, he says.
Very little of the plastic we use is actually recyclable. Sharon Lerner of The Intercept told Here & Now last year that “the vast majority of plastic ever made – 79% – was actually landed in landfills, or scattered or incinerated around the world, but not remodeled into new products.”
Even if the plastics we have can be reused, recycling programs around the world are facing drastic budget cuts, according to Ford.
“We see recycling programs closing, garbage collection communities working 50% or actually closing. They are the last line of defense between plastic and the environment, ”he says.
Last year Unilever promised to cut the use of non-recycled virgin plastics in half by 2025. In an interview with Here & Now, Richard Slater, Unilever’s Chief Research and Development Officer, relied on the industry argument that plastic packaging is lighter, which means less shipping and therefore less dangerous emissions that cause climate change.
Ford says the industry narrative is “a paradox in itself”.
Yes, plastics are light and can reduce fuel consumption, he says. On the other hand, plastic waste can be found in all facets of life – from the deepest oceanic trench on earth to mountain peaks. Studies have even found tiny plastic particles in the precipitate.
While this “super material” has helped people evolve, the sheer amount of plastic is worrying, says Ford, especially since “we haven’t been able to figure out how to control the way it gets into the environment.”
According to Ford, industry transparency is a first step in finding solutions to our plastics problem. In a recent World Wildlife Fund initiative called ReSource: Plastic, five major companies – Starbucks, Keurig Dr. Pepper, McDonald’s Corporation, Procter & Gamble, and The Coca-Cola Company – posted how much plastic they made, whether the plastic is recyclable or not, and where they believe the plastic will end up.
“It’s a big step forward because in order to find out what we’re going to do with it, we have to first find out how much it comes out,” says Ford.
The first ReSource: Plastics report was “pretty incredible,” he says, because it revealed industry insights that stakeholders would otherwise not have been familiar with.
ReSource: Plastics wants 100 of the world’s largest companies to sign their Transparency Initiative by 2030. Ford acknowledges that this project is a good plan of action, but would like it to be a little more ambitious.
“Regarding this issue, I don’t think we want to talk about transparency in the supply chain in 10 years,” he says. “We really have to speed up how much of it gets into the environment across the board.”
Lynn Menegon produced and edited this interview for airing with Todd Mundt. Serena McMahon customized it for the web.