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A renewed commitment to hygiene across the world, over the past few months, has equated to a surge in plastic use. Disposable face masks, single-use surgical gloves, plastic bags, disposable wipes, sanitizers and liquid soap in plastic bottles; people seem to feel protected by using these disposable items.  

According to the World Health Organization, it is not certain how long the virus that causes COVID-19 survives on surfaces, but it seems to behave like other coronaviruses. Studies suggest that coronaviruses may persist on surfaces for a few hours or up to several days, depending on several conditions. 

As a result, we have witnessed a drastic increase in the usage of these disposable accessories. But what happens when we dispose them off? Minimally equipped waste pickers are forced to deal with this huge influx of potential virus carriers.

One way to deal with this dilemma is through responsible disposal of these gloves and masks. 

We’re all aware of the sheer importance protective plastic gear holds toward our frontline workers. If this is what it takes to protect our heroes at all costs, so be it. But what about the rest of us? Do we strictly stick to single-use gear and nothing else? What if there are equally effective alternatives? 

Reusable cloth masks with multiple layers of fabric that fit securely on the face have been recommended by the CDC. If a mask made from extra cloth and a coffee filter doesn’t seem protective enough to you, opt for certified reusable masks, available in the market.  

Let’s leave the N95 masks for the ones who need them most.

Several businesses have been restricting the use of reusable cups and mugs in trains, cafes and restaurants over fears of transmission of the virus. Expert scientists, however, have marked this an unnecessary move, encouraging the use of clean, reusable cups. We must remember that we’re still at risk of cross-contamination, single-use cups or not.

And those gloves? The CDC recommends wearing gloves only when cleaning or caring for someone who is sick. Chores like running errands do not require gloves. Just everyday preventions like social distancing (at least 6 feet), washing hands with soap and water for 20 seconds (or using a hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol) in addition to face masks will do the job. 

Carrying our own shopping bags and shopping in bulk can help curb the menace that is plastic waste.  Further, supporting informal sector waste pickers by making a donation to your trusted organizations, and advocating for businesses to uphold commitments to reduce plastic waste, can secure some of our longer-term sustainability targets. 

Up to this point, we have only achieved a plastic recycling rate of less than 9%. With our waste pickers facing the danger of exposure to the virus and hampered recycling facilities due to the lockdown, this rate can easily dwindle. This can make it tougher for us to achieve a circular economy for plastics - to keep plastic waste out of our waterways, our oceans and our environment. 

In our bid to protect ourselves and our loved ones, let’s not cripple our planet. 

Two roads diverged in a wood - one heading to a plastic-filled ocean by 2050. The other to a circular economy of plastic - reduce, reuse and recycle. This #plasticfreejuly (a global movement that helps millions of people be part of the solution to plastic pollution) make wise choices because you hold the power to decide the road we go down on and the future we have in store.