Even as the environment saw several positive changes due to the lockdowns imposed across the globe to curb the spread of COVID-19, the pandemic has resulted in a massive increase in plastic pollution.
"Recent media reports, showing videos and photos of divers picking up masks and gloves, littering the waters around the French Riviera, were a wake-up call for many, refocusing minds on the plastic pollution issue, and a reminder that politicians, leaders and individuals need to address the problem of plastic pollution," the UN said.
"If historical data is a reliable indicator, it can be expected that around 75 per cent of the used masks, as well as other pandemic-related waste, will end up in landfills, or floating in the seas," it added.
According to a study published last week by the Pew Charitable Trusts and SYSTEMIQ, plastic waste flowing into our oceans could triple by the next 20 years to 29 million metric tonnes.
Similarly, last month, the World World Economic Forum had said, "one study estimates that in the UK alone if every person used a single-use face mask a day for a year, it would create an additional 66,000 tonnes of contaminated waste and 57,000 tonnes of plastic packaging."
"Plastic pollution was already one of the greatest threats to our planet before the coronavirus outbreak. The sudden boom in the daily use of certain products to keep people safe and stop the disease is making things much worse," said Pamela Coke-Hamilton, UNCTAD's(United Nations Conference On Trade And Development) director of international trade.
Amid this crisis, a fibre from a relative of the banana tree has come up as an alternative to plastic in making face masks and hospital gowns.
Abaca is a fibre from the Philippines which is used in teabags and banknotes. While as durable as polyester, it will decompose within two months, according to Philippine fibre agency head Kennedy Costales.
"With this pandemic, if we all buy masks made of synthetic fibre, they will pile up in dumpsites because they take so long to decompose," Costales was quoted by Bloomberg Quint.
According to the UN, plastic pollution is driven by a huge increase in mask sales. The UN trade body, UNCTAD estimates that global sales of disposable face masks will total some $166 billion this year, up from around $800 million in 2019.
The UN has also urged governments to promote biodegradable alternatives to plastic.
"UNCTAD is urging governments to promote non-toxic, biodegradable or easily recyclable alternatives, such as natural fibres, rice husk, and natural rubber. These products would be more environmentally-friendly and, as developing countries are key suppliers of many plastic substitutes, could provide the added benefit of providing new jobs," it said.
Tom Dillon, Pew's vice president for environment, said, "There's no single solution to ocean plastic pollution, but through rapid and concerted action we can break the plastic wave."
He added that as the organization's report shows, "we can invest in a future of reduced waste, better health outcomes, greater job creation, and a cleaner and more resilient environment for both people and nature."
Owing to concerns regarding cost, the strength of new materials, and its effectiveness for medical use, companies are reluctant to replace plastic with biodegradable alternatives.
However, a preliminary study conducted by the Philippine Department of Science and Technology showed abaca paper to be more water-resistant than a commercial N-95 mask. In addition, the study also showed the abaca paper to have pore sizes that fall within the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's recommended range to filter hazardous particles.
According to Costales, the demand for abaca could grow "exponentially" this year, with 10 per cent of production going to medical uses. Last year, this was less than 1 per cent.
With a supply of 85 per cent of abaca fibre in 2017, Philippines is the world's largest producer of the plant, said the latest data from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.
"Abaca fibre is rapidly gaining popularity as governments and manufacturers all around the world scamper to produce more reusable and safe medical garments for healthcare professionals," said Pratik Gurnani, senior consultant at Future Market Insights.
Gurnani added that global production is expected to be worth $100 million this year.
The abaca is native to the Philippines and the fibre is stripped from the trunks of the tree. Also known as Manila Hemp, the abaca plant is a close relative of the banana plant. It can grow up to 3 metres in length and has high tensile strength. It was once used for saltwater-resistant ship ropes and Manila envelopes in the 19th century.
Currently, the fibres are made into a pulp and processed into tea bags, sausage casing, cigarette paper and high-quality writing paper. Furthermore, nearly 30 per cent of Japan's banknotes are made of it. Abaca yarn has also been used in Mercedes-Benz cars.
While abaca fibre is more expensive to produce than plastic alternatives, in the last few months, manufacturers of protective health gear from China, India and Vietnam, have placed new orders for the fibre, said abaca exporter Firat Kabasakalli.
"People see this pandemic lasting for some time, so even small companies are trying to make protective equipment, which requires our fibre. We are getting a lot of inquiries from new clients abroad," Kabasakalli added.
"The awareness of consumers now is higher when it comes to taking care of the environment There are people who will pay a premium for environmentally friendly products," said Neil Francis Rafisura, general manager of Salay Handmade Products Industries Inc.
Meanwhile, Costales said that abaca production can't keep up with the demand. According to him, it is estimated that growers will increase output to 74,000 metric tons this year. However, this is not enough to meet even last year's supply deficit of about 125,000 tons.
Costales added that one of the reasons for lower production is that farmers in the Philippines lack government subsidies to raise output.
"Abaca is like precious gold for the Philippines, but it's been often overlooked because the government prioritizes crops that feed people. This is a missed opportunity for us," Costales said.Also Read: Tripura Artisans' Handcrafted Bamboo Bottles Make A Sustainable Alternative To Plastic