duer1_ LILLIAN SUWANRUMPHAAFP via Getty Images_plasticpollutionriverbangkokcoronavirus Lillian Suwanrumpha/AFP via Getty Images

The Plastic Pandemic

As the global economy restarts, aid agencies, development banks, and NGOs should invest in building effective waste-management systems. Beyond helping to keep plastic waste out of our oceans, such systems can provide decent jobs and improved livelihoods, resulting in stronger, more sustainable economies in the long term.

SINGAPORE – There is no denying that single-use plastic has been a lifesaver in the fight against COVID-19, especially for frontline health workers. It has also facilitated adherence to social-distancing rules, by enabling home delivery of basic goods, especially food. And it may have helped to curb transmission, by replacing reusable coffee cups and shopping bags in many cities over fears that the virus could stick to them.

But widely circulated images of plastic sacks of medical waste piling up outside hospitals, and used personal protective equipment floating in coastal waters and washing up on the world’s beaches, illustrate yet again the dark side of single-use plastics. If we are not careful, short-term thinking during the pandemic could lead to an even larger environmental and public-health calamity in the future.

Of course, the proliferation of plastic waste – and its pollution of the world’s waterways – already was a major concern for a growing share of the world population before the COVID-19 pandemic, with policymakers, companies, and international organizations like the United Nations urged to take action. Some national and local governments implemented taxes and bans on single-use plastics (though not all have followed through on their pledges). Major companies invested in more environmentally friendly packaging.

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