Plastic pollution is one of the greatest challenges we face in the world, yet due to the pandemic, focus around this topic has significantly shifted. It’s no understatement to say our work, family and social lives look substantially different than they did six months ago. School openings are an ongoing debate and business operations are in constant flux with shifting protocols. As a conservationist working against plastic pollution, COVID-19 has brought my worst fears to the forefront.
For added safety precautions, restaurants have altered their business models to mainly takeout or curbside options. Those who continue with on-site dining services are wary of contamination, or perhaps of their customer’s perception of contamination, so real dishes and cutlery have often been substituted with single-use products. On a larger scale, numerous single-use plastic bans have been either overturned or unenforced, leading to tens of thousands of businesses that were previously using sustainable products reverting back to environmentally harmful ones. The icing on this disastrous single-use plastic cake: personal protective equipment (PPE). Masks and disinfecting wipes are the new plastic litter trend of 2020.
Disposable personal protective equipment (PPE) are mostly made of synthetic plastic. Although they are necessary to keep us safe from COVID-19, disposal methods are often careless. They have been found in huge numbers along roadways and waterways, posing a health risk to the public. As they break down, they become microplastic and leach harmful chemicals into the environment. Although disposable PPE and single-use plastic options for dining and shopping seem like a sensible solution now, the future costs are vast. Since this pandemic will be around much longer than we originally anticipated, it is critical to take proactive steps; we cannot afford not to.
It’s clear a strong response is needed for these new perils of plastic we’re currently facing. That’s why we’re so grateful for folks like Pam and Michael Wilson who are as invested in this mission as we are. Because of their generous support, dedication to conservation efforts and substantial leadership contribution and service, we’ve been working to expand our efforts statewide through Pam and Michael Wilson Plastic-Free Waters. This program aims to mitigate plastic pollution impacts through outreach, community engagement and conservation fieldwork across South Carolina. We are excited to work collaboratively with individuals and groups to combat plastic pollution and curb these new threats brought forth by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Another goal of Pam and Michael Wilson Plastic-Free Waters is to increase the number and location of contributors to the Litter-free Digital Journal, a project in the South Carolina Aquarium Citizen Science app. Current members have made incredible strides during the pandemic to conduct litter sweeps and contribute data of findings, ultimately highlighting the most problematic debris (including disposable PPE). We are on the #marchtoamillion with over 930,000 debris items logged to date! No matter where you live, we hope you’ll join us in reaching that incredible milestone by tracking your own litter pickups. A virtual celebration you won’t want to miss will follow.
Now more than ever, we must consider our plastic footprint if we want to live healthy lives well into the future. Paper has proven to be a better option in avoiding COVID-19 contamination and it’s healthier for the environment. Support businesses and restaurants that are prioritizing paper and sustainable options. Invest in reusable masks rather than disposable ones. When shopping, bring reusable bags; if that option isn’t allowed, add your purchased items to a cart and bag them at your car.
Here are some additional ways you can take action against plastic pollution:
- If you haven’t already, register for the Litter-free Digital Journal to conduct litter sweeps, contribute data and track trends in your community.
- Volunteer as a Conservation Assistant to help extend our conservation reach into communities statewide.
- Consider financially supporting the South Carolina Aquarium through the Emergency Relief Fund to enable us to continue connecting you to water, wildlife and wild places.
Thank you for helping us collectively protect what we love.