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The Plastics Pandemic

Although the world's attention is understandably focused on COVID-19, we must not lose sight of longer-term priorities such as reducing plastics pollution, which the pandemic has exacerbated. The imperative is clear: Invest in policies and infrastructure to protect a resource that is vital to our economies and our very survival.

LUXEMBOURG – Plastic is entering the world’s oceans and seas in ever-greater quantities, and the COVID-19 pandemic is compounding the problem. Masks, gloves, and other forms of personal protective equipment are ending up in waterways. And the World Wildlife Fund estimates that if just 1% of the billions of masks made with a thermoplastic polymer called polypropylene are tossed on the ground rather than deposited in proper disposal bins, as many as ten million per month will end up in the environment as pollution.

Such warnings should serve as a reminder that no matter how urgent the COVID-19 crisis may be, our response to it must include long-term commitments to the environment. Even without the pandemic, tackling the problem of plastics and ocean pollution would be a massive undertaking. In fact, it is difficult to overstate the challenge. About ten million tons of plastics are discharged into the oceans each year, and the Ocean Conservancy believes there are already some 150 million metric tons circulating in marine environments.

Pollution generated by larger plastic items, such as bottles, could be stopped by implementing proper waste management around the world. But small plastic waste, in the form of so-called microplastics, will be a harder problem to solve, not least because it is barely visible.