There might be a five percent drop in greenhouse gas emissions this year as per the UN Conference on Trade and Development, but the rise in volume of single-use plastic waste attributed to hygiene practices and quarantine protocols remains to be an environmental concern. 

With the increase in PPE production and temporary closure of recycling facilities, can this plastic waste problem become a business opportunity?

Global sales of disposable face masks are set to increase from $800 million in 2019 to $166 billion in 2020, according to business consulting firm Grand View Research. Even before the pandemic started, eight million tonnes of plastic waste ended up in the ocean every year. This is particularly prominent in Southeast Asia which houses some of the top ocean polluters—Indonesia, Philippines and Vietnam.

The resulting lockdowns have also paved the way for the proliferation of delivery services, which greatly banks on plastic packaging and single-use utensils. E-commerce is expected to accelerate the growth of the global plastic packaging market to $1 trillion by 2021. This is alarming as 26 percent of all plastic production is attributed to packaging yet only 14 percent is recycled.

Despite the overwhelming numbers behind the surge in plastic waste, some economies devised sustainable alternatives and improved recycling efforts.

In Ghana, locally produced face masks are made of recycled water bottles and ice cream sachets. Tanzania also uses them to make face shields. Meanwhile, a Thai design company is turning more than 1.3 tonnes of unused fish nets to create face shields and disinfectant bottles.

Thailand also managed to create a 220-meter road made of recycled plastic. What they do is collect plastic, crush it into smaller pieces and then mix it with asphalt. According to Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Engineering, the recycled road is 15 to 30 percent more stable than asphalt concrete and more resistant to water erosion.

Building a circular economy means asserting a model for sustainability. Filipinos toss around 59.8 billion plastic sachets and more than 17 billion shopping bags every year.  Around 16.5 billion pieces of “labo” bags (small, thin and often transparent plastic used in eateries and neighborhoods) are also discarded. Despite this, we’ve seen local attempts to decrease dependency on plastic material—but we also need to multiply these efforts by establishing more green health facilities and introducing sustainable plastic alternatives.

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