Disposable plastic glove that has found its way onto a reef in the ocean. Life Solved logo and title in the corner.

Has the coronavirus pandemic created a dramatic setback for the global environmental crisis?

  • 13 July 2021
  • 35 min listen

This time we’re asking if the coronavirus pandemic has created a dramatic setback for the global environmental crisis.

From the vast increase in the use and disposal of PPE such as face masks and gloves to the changing consumer habits that arose from lockdown, we look at how the plastics problem has been exacerbated by Covid-19 conditions.

At the same time, we ask where there might be some hopeful green lights on the horizon as the individuals, governments and international collaborations take action.

Professor Steve Fletcher and Dr Keiron Roberts explain how the University of Portsmouth’s Revolution Plastics initiative is sharing insights to help make impactful policy.

And Dr Sianne Gordon-Wilson tells us about her research into how our consumer behaviour and sustainable attitudes changed during the pandemic.

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Episode transcript:

John Worsey: Thanks for downloading Life Solved. I'm John Worsey, and we've been hearing from researchers from the University of Portsmouth on how life looks set to change for good following the covid-19 pandemic. Of all the national and global trends we've seen emerge, our increased awareness of plastics pollution and sustainability has taken a unique course. Prior to the pandemic, conversations were taking place around how we as individuals and nations might limit or reverse the damage caused by pollution to people, planet and environments. Then, from March 2020, record-breaking amounts of PPE found their way into our lives and our refuge systems globally. At the same time, many of us in lockdown sought comfort and respite in nature, appreciating the delicate balance of our local environments. If there is anything we might want to keep as we go forward, it is a renewed passion for protecting people and planet from pollution and unsustainable practices.

Steve Fletcher: What we're looking to do at the University of Portsmouth is to generate an evidence base for the types of policy interventions and the type of public engagement with plastics that actually do make a difference quickly.

John Worsey: As nations of the world collaborate on the path to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, sectors, organisations and businesses on every level are undergoing a revolution in sustainable agendas. Our values and economies are changing for good and our actions in tackling waste and pollution, building sustainable policy and cutting carbon emissions are all connected in this global vision of our future. But did Coronavirus set us back even further than we were before? How are our individual habits set to change and what might be the solutions on an international scale? We'll find out this time on Life Solved. We're starting our exploration of changing sustainability habits close to home. Our attitudes to waste and the way we consume products has a fundamental impact on supply chains that can extend globally. To understand how we are all part of the transition to a more sustainable world, I'm going to talk to someone who's been keeping a close eye on how our behaviour as consumers has changed through the pandemic.

Sianne Gordon-Wilson: My name is Dr Sianne Gordon-Wilson and I'm a senior lecturer in Marketing at the University of Portsmouth. The research areas that I look into is two different areas. One is the sustainable consumption and the sustainable behaviour, and the other is more the consumer behaviour and the consumer psychology because they are kind of inadvertently linked in terms of what we're consuming and why we're consuming can be linked to, are we doing that in a sustainable way or are we actually acting or behaving sustainable as well?

John Worsey: Sianne says there were distinct phases in our habits throughout the lockdown period in which our consumption changed. You might have expected that with no reason to leave our houses other than to buy groceries, consumption of products in general decreased. This was the case in some ways but in others, we bought more.

Sianne Gordon-Wilson: I remember seeing the coverage of Italy and Spain and that's when I was terrified thinking, oh, my word. Because this is an hour away. As a result of that, this is when we got into the period of stockpiling because we just didn't know what was going to be happening. I remember going and rushing to the supermarket, queuing for ages, these long queues. People were just buying toilet rolls and pasta and rice. Their trolleys were full. I think I was part of many people-- and then I only started buying the toilet roll when I saw everybody else buying the toilet roll. So what we had as a result of this, the stockpiles, in the run-up to the lockdown is a lot of people just compulsively consume stuff that they didn't need. It was a lot of unnecessary consumption. And the result of that was it led to a lot of wastage, a lot of best before dates were running out because people were just buying more than they could actually consume. And a lot of things were being thrown away, like fresh produce, like vegetables and things like that. And there were some things, obviously, like flour that you couldn't get, like pasta, like tinned tomatoes, yeast for bread. I remember between the three of us, a few of my friends were like, whoever can get yeast for us, just buy it and just leave it on the other person's doorstep. So it was just like this whole community feel of consumption. Every consumption model theory that I'd ever studied had completely gone out the window! This is all different consumption. So as a result of that, I was just like, I need to record this.

John Worsey: You remember how it went down, but stockpiling and wasting was only phase one. Next came the tightening of belts.

Sianne Gordon-Wilson: Some people that couldn't work, so there were furloughs. So I think that makes you re-evaluate your consumption habits and your consumption practises and to think, do I really need this? Is this really necessary? What my research did show is as a result of that, quite a lot of people were tightening their belts. I mean, this is very much about food. But my sustainability research has shown it happens about clothes as well because a lot of people were browsing around the town centres or shopping centres of the world seeing things and then going to try them on and been tempted. Although they said that they could do this online, they said it just wasn't-- didn't have the same appeal. There wasn't the occasion to be wearing things as well. People weren't going to work. People weren't going out, you know, so a lot of the casual type things or the professional type things weren't selling. What actually was selling was sports gear, because obviously we were allowed out for an hour. The thing about the whole retail industry, they missed whole seasons of clothes. The people working in the factories, and they're not getting paid because the things aren't selling. But, yeah, they were still turning up for work to produce things. So, yeah, a lot of the major players were it was it's not really acceptable in terms of what they were doing.

John Worsey: So what about the other impacts of our changes in behaviour? There was a mix of positive and negative trends, some of which have carried through into present attitudes.

Sianne Gordon-Wilson: Transport was a saving for most people because they weren't allowed to drive and etc. And so they obviously they saved on fuel and they saw not just the financial benefit, but also the sustainable benefit as well in terms of the CO2 emissions as well. The reductions that was all positive. The packaging... A lot of my research found this was quite negative because there were only essential shops open. Many of those had limited supplies. People were cycling. They were taking up cycling as a form of exercise. So trying to get a bike or anything bike related, it was basically restricted to a few players. So when it came to things like you can't buy bikes, so what you do is you look at what you have and you need to kind of get it ready to cycle, to get all the parts. My research has shown that they had to go to Amazon. It was the only place that they could go to for some parts. And one thing that a lot of the participants did say that they didn't like was the excess of packaging in Amazon. And also those that did online shopping as well from the supermarket they said they were using plastic bags, but an excess. There seems to have been an increase in terms of packaging waste, and that then led them to consider, oh, is there anything that I can do that can reduce that packaging? So some of them said that they looked at more like reusable food bags as a result of that. I had some females who said they started looking at more sustainable sanitary products as well that they'd never even considered. So it just made them take a step back and reflect and say, oh, this isn't good. So what else can I do? What can I do to try and kind of reverse this trend?

John Worsey: One other conscious behaviour change many made was to repair existing products they already owned. From bikes to clothes, people have increased their creative skills long term, and they now have the tools and potential to get more out of products in the future.

Sianne Gordon-Wilson: There was definitely a willingness and the motivation to extend the product lifecycle to just kind of maximise the usage, the product usage, as anything that they were using. And even with clothes as well, a few of the participants were saying that households were inspired by programmes such as the Great British Sewing Bee. Watching that and thinking, what can I do with my clothes? What can I turn this into? I think there's going to be a huge increase in the whole C2C market. C2C, is more consumer to consumer. So examples of consumers to consumers, C2C, would be things like eBay. Yeah? So you've worn something, you don't want it anymore, do I throw it away? Do I give it to charity so somebody else can benefit from it? Or, you know, I've hardly worn it so I might try and extend that shelf life again a bit further. So I noticed there's definitely before it was predominantly eBay and Depot was gaining traction. But I'm noticing that a lot more are emerging and getting, you know, a lot more popular, such as Vinted and HEWI, so hardly ever worn out. So I think this is like, do we really need anything new?

John Worsey: So what's the best way to encourage consumers like you and me to keep up sustainable habits long term?

Sianne Gordon-Wilson: I think it just has to be very inclusive. I think if you start to segment it in terms of them and us, I just don't think you're going to get the mainstream appeal. So I think it needs to be manageable. You can't expect consumers to be 100 per cent sustainable. It's this mindset that you have to have a full awareness of the supply chain. That's never going to happen unless you make it and grow it yourself. So I think we need to just educate consumers that even one more thing is sustainable.

John Worsey: Whereas there are things we can all do in daily life to contribute to a more sustainable world, there are some problems that need to be tackled on a more global scale. That comes down to government policies, international collaborations and massive action from different nations to change their relationships with waste. Tackling the amount of plastic waste in our oceans is a huge part of that. To talk about this, Professor Steve Fletcher stopped by. He's a professor of ocean policy and economy here at Portsmouth. If you're wondering why oceans are so vital to global sustainability, you can check out Steve's episode in Season One of Life Solved or just listen on. It'll all make sense in a minute.

Steve Fletcher: I also lead the Revolution Plastics initiative. I'm also a member of the UN International Resource Panel, which is a body of scientists that support governments and intergovernmental agencies to make better decisions around the sustainable use of the world's resources.

John Worsey: Steve's joined by Kieron Roberts, a research fellow here at the University of Portsmouth.

Kieron Roberts: I currently work within revolution plastics in the sustainability field. I also work in civil engineering on embedding low carbon solutions into activities of small geo enterprises.

John Worsey: To start with our current state of play, Steve explains why our plastics problem in the ocean has us on course for disastrous impacts.

Steve Fletcher: The United Nations Environment Programme have identified three crises affecting the ocean. One is the impact of climate change, which warms and acidifies the ocean. The other is the loss of biodiversity or loss of life in the ocean. And the third is pollution. And one of the key sources of pollution in the ocean is plastics. And of course, plastics, by the way, does increase the warming of the ocean. It has a direct effect on biodiversity or the loss of nature. So the three crises are strangely connected by plastics. What we are seeing in the ocean now is not a reduction in plastics entering the ocean, despite the high level of public profile of plastics and the number of politicians who are actively talking about doing something about plastics. What we're seeing between now and 2040 is a predicted tripling of plastics entering the ocean and a quadrupling of the stock of plastics entering the ocean. And at the same time, we see a predicted reduction compared to business as usual of only seven percent from the existing policies, either from governments or businesses. So what we're seeing basically is a huge and continuing increase in plastics entering the ocean and the policies that are currently in place to reduce that, only reducing that by a tiny amount. So the impacts of plastic on marine habitats are pretty significant. For example, the plastic itself gets caught up in and amongst the habitats themselves and has a kind of smothering effect on those habitats. What you then tend to find is that ecosystems that are already under pressure from, say, warming waters or acidifying waters, maybe they're also under pressure from other forms of pollution from the land. When they're then faced also with plastic pollution, it's almost the straw that breaking the camel's back in a way, it's just another pressure on that marine ecosystem that's already under severe stress. And what we're finding is when you add plastics to the mix, it's just pushing some ecosystems over the edge, and coral reefs would be a great example of that. We've already lost around 50 percent of the global coral reef coverage and the multiple stressors that are affecting coral reefs, including plastics, as a result of all of those, we're likely to see a total loss of coral reefs in the next 40 to 50 years.

Kieron Roberts: So you've got the green economy and the blue economy. So the green economy is seen as being on land. The blue economy's been on water. And those impacts that Steve mentioned will also have impacts on fisheries and on the aesthetic of the area, the usability of the area. So if you've got an awful lot of plastic being deposited somewhere, then tourism will start to be hit, fishing will start to be hit, and then you get a knock-on effect in the local communities of those areas. And that's particularly impactful in what they define as the global south and those nations that are classically seen as being developing. And they often don't have the resilience, as more developed nations do, to cope with the influx of these things.

John Worsey: That's the bad news. But there are ideas and models for how the impact on environments and human life can be reduced. We'll find out more in a moment. But before that, I wanted to know what the role of the individual can be in this. To find out if the pandemic has changed our course towards a more sustainable world, Kieron explained how things changed for consumers like you and me during the pandemic.

Kieron Roberts: Before the pandemic itself, we were beginning to decrease the amount of single-use items that we had. So we had good behaviours with using reusable cups, stopping the use of plastic knives and forks, and reducing the amount of packaging that we had. And one of the big successes was plastic bags going to bags for life or if you forget, carrying all the shopping home yourself. And then we had refill schemes. But when the pandemic hit, everything began to change. We moved towards this more hygienic route where we were using plastic as a barrier. So instead of having loose fruit and veg, we go in and prefer to have the larger packaged items.

John Worsey: More packaging meant more plastic waste. Locked down home clearouts led to fly tipping. And increased PPE use led to further littering. Kieron says many people have continued with their increased use of plastics at this point.

Kieron Roberts: In the middle of the pandemic, so where we are about now, some customers preferences have stayed. So people have wanted to keep using plastic for health and safety reasons. People are now using masks more often, the more comfortable with them. But we are seeing still those incidences of litter on the floor, and we're coming used to having plastic screens everywhere to help segregate us and help facilitate that social distancing of individuals. And what's become a bi weekly occurrence is the is the covid tests that we have adding to that plastic burden that we didn't have pre-2020.

John Worsey: Steve says this microscale issue of plastic waste comes from a lack of guidance, but there are still positive actions taking place on the wider scale.

Steve Fletcher: Partly, that's driven by not so much policy, but more an absence of policy in a sense. So during the pandemic, there hasn't really been very much guidance to the public from any government really about how they should deal with the waste they generate through adhering to government advice around safety and being hygienic with the use of masks and covid tests and so on. What we are beginning to see, though, is a resurgence of political support for global agreements on how we deal with plastics and not really anything specifically to do with covid, I don't think, but really around recognising that plastics have a challenging role in the global economy. And we need to deal with the negative side effects of plastics as a cost to nature, as a cost to people's health, but also just as a cost to business. It's an inefficiency really not to be able to reuse the plastics that people and businesses spend so long, creating and investing huge amounts of money in. So it just kind of makes sense to be more efficient with how we use it. And so the European Union has put in place some Europe wide laws around phasing out of certain plastic items such as earbuds and plastic straws and things like that. But there's also a growing campaign and support for a new global agreement on plastics, a global convention in effect, which would look to minimise the use of new plastic to make our use of existing plastics more efficient and begin to really get a handle on how we manage used plastics in a way that they don't end up in nature as pollutants. What the pandemic has done is really focused people's minds on nature, and a lot of people report that they've had a different relationship or they've grown a different relationship with nature, with the outdoors, with birdsong, with taking a walk in the park or on the beach, and that has become a real saviour and release for them as part of their everyday lives. And I guess people might be noticing plastic pollution a little bit more and they might just be beginning to make an association between their own lives and what they begin to see out and about.

John Worsey: Some green shoots there. But Steve says that big shifts, the likes of which are required to meet the plastic pollution crisis, don't happen through isolated action, but systemic change. That's the goal of Revolution Plastics.

Steve Fletcher: So, for example, it's no use just introducing a new recycling technology if the plastic isn't even collected that will feed into that recycling technology. It's no good having the recycling technology if then there's not a market for the recycled plastic that comes out at the end of that process. So really what we need to do is shift the entire plastic creation use and disposal process from a linear process where we make it, we use it and we chuck it away to a circular process where we make the plastic, we use it and then we get that plastic back into the raw materials and the raw products that are made to feedback into the economy. That's called a circular economy for plastics. And that's what we really want to see a shift towards.

John Worsey: We've talked quite a bit about our changing relationship with nature as a result of the covid-19 pandemic. That's because, as Steve mentioned, we're able to see how human activity is impacting environments. But the other serious effect of our plastic waste economy is upon human health. The urgent problem might still be overlooked by you and me because we don't see the drastic impact it has on life in places such as the global south.

Kieron Roberts: So we've got initiatives that the EU have come up with where you have to have materials for repair. So large items, particularly fridge freezers, TVs now need to be designed to be repaired so they're not wasted. And around about thirty per cent of the volume of material in those items is plastic. It would often be taken away, the plastic would be disposed of, the metals recovered for use. More often than not, it would be sent to places where it will be recovered in what we would see as quite damaging ways. And those ways would be to burn off the plastics and the rubbers, to leave behind the metals that could be traded for value. And that contributes to around about a million deaths a year through this combustion of those materials itself.

John Worsey: Long term systemic change on every level is essential. From governments collaborating on policy to making sure producers offer sustainable choice to consumers without compromising convenience and cost. Kieron thinks these are some of the ingredients for long term evolution. While it is too late for many, Kieron says we do still have a shot at recovery.

Kieron Roberts: Modelling that recently came out last year, on what would happen if we actually started to implement more targeted, more systemic policies have shown that over the course of about 20 years from now, we could say globally around about 70 billion dollars just by recovering plastics and using less. We can reduce the amount of virgin plastic, so this is plastic coming from fossil fuel sources by about 55 per cent, which means you don't have to extract those, we don't have to use diesel fossil fuel sources and we can bring the system into that circular economy model. That in itself would then reduce the amount of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, CO2 equivalent by about 25 per cent and create around about 700,000 new jobs in those in those areas of plastic recovery and that'll primarily be in these developing nations of which plastic can be an issue where we're exporting it from, classically, the global north, developed nations into these less-developed nations to treat our waste.

John Worsey: Here at Portsmouth, Revolution Plastics is building an evidence-based database of information to help governments create effective policy, the first of its kind available globally. Crucially, it's non-partisan and it's non-political.

Steve Fletcher: We're establishing a plastics policy hub. So at the moment, we're working through a process of policy analysis where we will find the enablers, the things that help policy work more effectively and of course, the barriers that prevent policies really driving the sorts of changes that we need to see. We will share that publicly so that there is a publicly, freely available evidence base to help formulate stronger and more effective plastics policies. There are real problems in the global south with this, particularly around environmental pollution and public health. You know, people living in horrific conditions where plastic pollution, I mean, is part of their everyday life. You know, this is not acceptable, really. So we as independent researchers can help to overcome some of those problems by sharing what works and really promoting solutions at the global scale that can really change people's lives for the better.

Kieron Roberts: The "build back better" that we're hearing from the G7 nations and from our own government is ensuring that actually has something that's underpinning it, and it's not just a sound-bite piece. So there's evidence behind that "build back better" that finances will be available for a Covid recovery do help small businesses, large businesses, but they also do focus on using alternatives to what we were using before 2019 to encourage those organisations to move towards sustainable material use. So at no point are we trying to say that plastic is bad. Plastic is absolutely fantastic for what it does. And because of how good it is, that is what causes an awful lot of problems.

John Worsey: Plastics pollution will continue to have a disastrous impact on human health, environments and economies if policies and practices continue as they are. It's great to hear that the G7, UN and other bodies are working at that high level to implement the systemic change needed. What's also encouraging is to hear that the actions we can all take will also add up in the future. From having conversations that deepen understanding, to changing attitudes in our homes and consumption habits. We're all moving towards a better, more sustainable world. The lockdown trends we've seen here in the UK of repairing items, travelling less, recycling and reusing can all be continued to help us be a bit more sustainable as individuals and a lot more sustainable as a nation. Sianne's point about doing a little, even if it's not a lot, adds up to that sense of how we can all play our part in making long term changes achievable. It's the sort of marginal game that ends up making a real difference. Food for thought. If you want to find out more about the work of Revolution Plastics, look them up on our website, port.ac.uk. You can follow this podcast on your favourite app and find out more about our researchers and their projects by going online to port.ac.uk/research. Thanks for joining me. We'll catch you next time.

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