Shirley de Villiers FM features editor & columnist
Picture: 123RF/IAN IANKOVSKII
Picture: 123RF/IAN IANKOVSKII

In the early 1920s, the average incandescent household light bulb burnt for about 1,500 to 2,000 hours. By 1925, it would burn for a markedly shorter 1,000 hours – the result of an astounding display of cross-continental corporate collusion.

The Phoebus Cartel – including luminaries such as Osram, Philips and General Electric – set out in 1924 to carve the world up into discrete spheres of operations. It also reversed the technological gains of the industry by reducing the lifespan of light bulbs. It was a slick move, ensuring consumers would not just pay more for cartel members’ products, but be forced to do so more often.

(You can read the tale of Phoebus on engineering website IEEE Spectrum. Related, but far less gripping, is the feed where you can watch the Centennial Light, a bulb that’s burnt almost continuously since 1901.)

Phoebus’s efforts offer an early example of planned obsolescence – building redundancies into products to ensure repeat custom.

It’s good for business; less so for the consumer. Think, for example, of nonrefillable printer cartridges, glued-in smartphone batteries, or the infuriating fragility of Apple charger cables. It’s a practice that has also been charged with cranking up the consumerism that drives climate change, and promoting a throwaway, polluting culture.

There’s a similar trend in medical supplies, if Yale University professor of anaesthesiology and epidemiology Jodi Sherman is to be believed.

Speaking about the proliferation of personal protective equipment (PPE) as a result of the Covid pandemic, Sherman says that it was only in the 1980s that PPE – much of it plastic-based – became largely single-use products.

“The more stuff you throw away, the more you have to buy, so it’s an advantageous business model for things not to be durable,” she tells the Financial Times in this free-to-read article on the “pandemic waste crisis”.

It’s a growing concern, considering just how much PPE is required to fend off Covid-19. As the FT’s Anna Gross points out, the World Health Organisation (WHO) in March projected a 40% a month increase in PPE demand (including for 89-million masks, 76-million pairs of gloves and 1.6-million pairs of goggles).

According to Chloe Way, writing for The Conversation, 2.3-billion PPE items were distributed throughout England’s health and social services from February to July – the same as the whole of last year. And The Economist says the disposable mask market alone is expected to reach $166bn this year – a whopping 200 times the 2019 market ($800m).

Increasingly, these artefacts of illness are finding their ways into general waste streams and water sources, adding to a problem that, the FT points out, could see 29Mt a year of plastic dumped in the oceans by 2040, if no action is taken.

Of course, it’s not just PPE that has upped the Covid plastic ante.

As Gross points out, a bottomed-out oil price has made it cheaper to produce virgin plastic than recycle existing products. And Covid has upended both local recycling and global waste disposal chains.

Increased online orders and takeaways have seen the global packaging market grow (an estimated 5.5% in May), according to Francesca Perry, writing in Wired magazine.

At the same time, Perry says, governments have pushed back their climate commitments due to Covid concerns: the UK has delayed a ban on plastic straws and reversed a levy on plastic bags for online purchases; various states in the US have delayed or pulled bans on plastic bags; and the EU Commission is being lobbied to push back a ban on single-use plastics, due to take effect next year.

It’s not all bad news. In her article, Way lists alternatives to, and innovations around, single-use PPE – including biodegradable gloves, decontamination containers for reusable PPE, research on the decontaminant effects of ultraviolet light, and products such as Reelshield’s biodegradable, plastic-free face visor (you can compost it at home).

The 2020 geological impact

On a broader level, Covid may be the push we need to become a more circular economy – one “based on the principles of designing out waste and pollution, keeping products and materials in use, and regenerating natural systems”, Etienne Kechichian and Nidal Mahmoud write on the World Bank blog.

If anything, they say, Covid has highlighted both the unsustainability and the fragility of global supply chains. But it’s also sown the seeds for a new way of living – forcing innovation in reusable PPE and plastic-free packaging, for example.

Leading the way, Amsterdam has put the circular economy at the heart of its Covid recovery plan, rolling out its “Circular 2020-2050 Strategy”. The EU and South Korea have also put “green deals” in place for their recoveries.

There’s an even bigger picture to think about – somewhat whimsically, perhaps. That’s how – or even if – 2020 will register in the history of the planet.

In an article on The Conversation, scientists at the University of Leicester’s Centre for Palaeobiological Research share the results of their thought experiment about the effect of Covid on the geological record. Given the trauma wrought by the pandemic, it’s at once devastating and reassuring to know it will take “a sharp-eyed palaeontologist” to pick up the events of 2020 in a fossil signal.

In fact, they believe the only event that’s likely to register more than a blip in history is if Covid-19 galvanises global leaders into climate action. If we can successfully cut emissions, implement “green new deals” and turn to the circular economy, “climate stabilisation would be recorded not just in ice and lake cores, but in corals, tree rings and stalagmites worldwide”.

Failing that, the clearest signs of the pandemic may be those of our consumption: the billions of masks turned into microplastics on the seafloor – remnants of degraded “plastic islands” in the ocean. Or fossils of “relatively intact gloves and masks [that] may accumulate in river beds or at the bottom of lakes” and be etched in newly formed rocks. Our own pandemic Pompeii.

*De Villiers is the features editor of the FM​

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