New evidence suggests that everyday items which have become essential during the pandemic are now threatening the natural environment.
An increasing number of face masks, disposable coffee cups and takeaway containers are being found in watercourses, according to environmental groups.
A survey by the Marine Conservation Society in Autumn 2020 found masks and other PPE in 69% of inland litter picks and on a third of beaches. Similarly, TradeWaste.co.uk says masks are now being found in streams and rivers.
While these items have been essential in reducing transmission of coronavirus – showing the very real benefits of plastics in protecting people and products alike – pollution is an unintended consequence of our growing reliance on them.
Waste found around construction sites can contribute to these litter problems as well as cause problems for sites themselves.
Waste found in sustainable urban drainage systems (SUDS) creates risks of blockages, drainage problems and even floods. SUDS systems, such as basins or drainage ditches, are vital in controlling the outflow of water on construction sites, meaning it is important they do not become blocked or polluted. And with ‘April showers’ forecast this month, this seasonal heavy rain is likely to exacerbate problems.
For construction sites and new developments, implementing a regular inspection and maintenance plan will ensure litter or contamination, and their causes or sources, can be identified and removed. It is important to remember that a site doesn’t need to be near to a stream or river for these steps to be taken, as any litter entering drains can travel to watercourses.
Figure 1 – Plastic bottles, takeaway boxes and other debris are disposed of and find their way into watercourses, which lead to pollution.
Primarily, ensuring bins and skips are covered and wind-proof will stop waste from travelling.
Additionally, for environmental protection, pollution prevention methods such as mesh panels can be installed at pipes or outflows to filter water, capture and separate debris and reduce the potential for blockages. For larger bodies of water, a boom downstream from a site can also capture any waste.
Taking these steps is not just a moral duty to reduce litter but is bound by various regulations and compliance guidance for construction sites.
As well as preventing potentially costly problems, the clients, businesses and public who construction sites ultimately benefit will also thank contractors for taking these steps. One-in-three people believe plastic pollution has become a more important problem to solve since the outbreak of the pandemic, according to a recent report from The Grocer Vision.
However, while the problem of plastic waste has been exacerbated in the last year, it is not new. A studies undertaken previously found plastics, in particularly microplastics, in rivers. This means practical, sustainable steps to clear pollution and manage environmental protection should extend long after lockdowns are lifted, and the pandemic subsides.
Remaining mindful of the risks and issues of waste in sustainable urban drainage systems and maintaining a program to monitor and clear watercourses will reduce the risks of blockages or floods while also ensuring adherence to the relevant legislation.