Drill oil? Even PPE can be plastic free

At the start of lockdown, a friend remarked: “We’re told not to use so much plastic and now we’ve got all this plastic PPE that will need throwing away.”

What can we do? This week, two things happened to prompt thoughts about this.

The first one was part of the response by the company running Horse Hill’s oil drilling site after four Extinction Rebellion protesters broke in. A put down, condemning the actions during the Covid-19 pandemic.

“And did they ever stop to think that the medical equipment and PPE the country sorely needs at present is derived from oil and gas? Face masks and visors, gloves, protective aprons, syringes, sterile tubes and pipes in intubators and ventilators, catheters, sample bottles, tablet dispensers, vital function computers and screens, the list is endless. Even patient notes are kept in a plastic file and ID wristbands are made from plastic. All are made from petroleum products. You cannot get away from it.”

A second story developed, completely independently, to counter those claims. Campaign group A Plastic Planet, announced the world’s first non-plastic Personal Protective Equipment has been developed.

Visors have been designed from FSC paper board and PEFC cellulose from wood pulp. They can be recyled and composted at home. A Plastic Planet has worked with Reelbrands and Transcend Packaging to develop them.

Horse Hill’s drillers defended their business, having been granted a 20-year drilling licence in September, and the status quo assumption that the world needs fossil fuels to survive. Those outside the scramble for fossil fuels thought differently. They showed how we can get away from oil-based plastic.

We can and we must, if we are to reduce global temperature rises to anywhere close to 2C by 2050.

Another campaigner quoted in the Edie.net article about the new visors put it bluntly: “PPE is vital for the protection of health care workers and to reduce the transmission of the virus. But it doesn’t have to be made from fossil fuels.”

A major part of achieving that 2C target is to shift away from carbon-creating fossil fuels, for example towards renewables for energy. And in our sites also must be the amount of plastic we produce from them.

Consider how destructive to the environment the 8-10% of fossil fuel extractions that are used for plastic production become. There is an argument that every piece of plastic that has been created still exists today, an assumption which can’t be true if some of it is incinerated. (It wouldn’t exist in the same form, at least, but as a by product.)

A staggering 761 million pieces of PPE have been handed out across the UK since March. Shockingly, as reported on this website, some of those pieces have been carelessly discarded.

Now, a million pieces of PPE – the visors – will be produced in the coming weeks and even collected, through TerraCycle, another link set up by A Plastic Planet. This, as Sian Sutherland, the campaign leader, suggests, demonstrates how alternatives to plastic can be found as society emerges from our pandemic. It also proves that quick solutions are possible.

There are plenty of videos on YouTube giving advice on how to make “bio-plastic” – something as durable as plastic but made of starch.

As we consider the future of our world, many people are thinking the current Covid-19 crisis is a perfect opportunity to “build back better”. It can be a time to be more environmentally friendly in our approach to life. We can pause and think about living differently, in order to drive down carbon emissions and save the planet from the destructiveness of humanity.

We must also consider that it is estimated 12 billion pieces of single use plastic will be in the natural environment or landfill by 2050.

Furthermore, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation has predicted that, by weight, there could be more plastic in the sea than fish by 2050.

Both are “business as usual”, “carry on and do nothing”, scenarios. Another killer statistic is that only 9 per cent of plastic created between 1950 and 2015 has been recycled. Rates are improving, with reports suggesting that 25 per cent in 2014 was recycled in the UK. Inventing alternatives, therefore, that can return to a compostable material is surely preferrable. (But just stop and think for a minute: how much CAN you recycle? How much goes in your domestic bin as unrecyclable? And how much do you use over and again and discard many years later, only when broken? It has never been the case that all of that plastic produced is likely to have come to its functioning end.)

With countries such as Spain pledging to source all their energy from renewables by 2050, there should be less need for fossil fuel extraction. If we “only” needed it for plastic, we could – if the current production rate stayed the same – “only” need 8-10% of existing fossil fuel sites. If our politicians thought that way, we would therefore not allow new oil sites to open in the UK, especially any approved after the UK declared a climate emergency in May 2019.

Covid-19 could, some reports say, even lead to the decline of much of the fossil fuel industry, as the price falls. It is an optimistic view because if they owe huge amounts to the world’s banks, those financial institutions will likely want to bail them out. And Governments will wish to bail out their banks. We’ve been here before, in the 2009 financial crisis, when nothing changed significantly for the environment when there was a huge opportunity.

Perhaps now, however, if fewer people travel to work so regularly – and particularly internationally – preferring meetings online, the demand for fuel will continue to fall. This is certainly a short-term scenario. It could be the longer term view if a trend in the United States continues. Renewable energies have overtaken coal consumption for the first time in 130 years.

Even as various campaign groups press us to reduce our reliance on plastic, those same campaigners must now address our policy makers. Each time a company wishes to set up a fossil fuel site, ask them to propose a renewables plan for the site instead. This is because demand for wind or solar power is growing in demand – and because fossil fuel production releases too much carbon.