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The Plastic Pandemic Emergency

Words by Michaila Byrne

As the public reaches for their blue face masks and frontline workers pull on their hazmat suits, there is a united sense that safety and protection are, at present, our most pressing and top priority – but at what cost? Until we find a vaccine, facemasks and PPE may be our only defence against the COVID-19 virus, but healthcare industries must remain mindful and vigilant about the increased consumption of plastic and the environmental consequences. How can the pharmaceutical industry assist and leverage their influence so that we do not regress on all the positive progress we have made when it comes

to sustainability?

“The whole focus of the world has been on the elimination of plastics, then came COVID-19 and put the whammy on everything that we were doing right,” states Janet Carlson, CEO and Creative Director for Copy, One Eleven Group. Take a stroll through any major city, town, or even the countryside, and you will likely stumble across scenes of single-use face masks blighting outdoor landscapes. Dr Dorota Napierska, Chemicals Policy & Projects Officer, Health Care Without Harm Europe, warns against what is likely to evolve into a major environmental issue: “The COVID-19 pandemic has obviously had a tremendous impact on the waste sector. The volume of medical waste is rising steadily and this is linked to growing populations and an increase in patients, but crucially, the healthcare sector has also become more and more reliant on single-use items and products with a lot

of packaging.”

It is imperative that we do not revert to bad habits and we must keep reminding ourselves of the incredible strides we have taken in adopting innovative and sustainable alternatives over the past few years. Our reliance on and addiction to plastic is by no means an incurable disease. Sian Sutherland, Co-Founder, A Plastic Planet, urges pharma to “turn off the plastic tap and embrace ingenious alternatives”. She goes on to say: “The pandemic has also brought out the best in some of the world’s most innovative companies. We were proud this year to work with packaging designers, Reelbrands and Tams Packaging, to develop plastic-free visors to protect frontline workers without adding to plastic pollution.” Although pharmaceutical companies might not be manufacturers of PPE, Napierska reminds us that “[they] are users of PPE and can demand manufacturers to provide them with more durable, reusable, and sustainable products, and encourage them to innovate and pilot safer and more environmentally friendly solutions, free from hazardous chemicals.” Every challenge brings with it the chance for innovation as well as real, quantifiable change. This is especially true for juggernaut industries like pharma, with Carlson advising that corporations “find a company to partner with who can take your waste and make something great out of it. We all have to look for opportunities to not only be responsible but to help grow the economy and support entrepreneurs too.”

The healthcare sector has become more and more reliant on single-use items and products with a lot of packaging

As is the case with any collective effort, clarity and consistency of information cannot be understated. By now we are all aware of the dangers of plastic, but education around the proper disposal of PPE can certainly be improved, emphasising the relationship between human and planetary health more explicitly. Sutherland emphasises that PPE “needs to be treated as waste as it is not recyclable or biodegradable, but this has not been properly communicated and it has led to disastrous consequences. If 1% of masks are disposed of incorrectly, approximately 10 million will end up in the natural environment every month.” Pharma can assume a greater role in encouraging hospitals, patients, physicians, and the general public to opt for more sustainable and environmentally conscious decisions when it comes to PPE. “Whilst PPE is essential for the protection of health workers and patients, the general population can consider alternative solutions such as reusable face masks and avoiding using gloves in public spaces to limit the burden on Earth’s resources and environment,” suggests Napierska.

In times of crisis when priorities are understandably being reshuffled, it is easy to fall off the wagon and back into old habitual behaviours, but the industry cannot afford to throw to waste all the progressive work we have set in motion. Through embracing innovative, sustainable alternatives at every level and by engaging in this conversation publicly and honestly, we can all pause, correct our behaviours, and put sustainability back in the front seat. If we can strike a balance between protecting ourselves and the planet, we will all reap the rewards in the years to come.

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