Coronavirus is causing a flurry of plastic waste. Campaigners fear it may be permanent

A woman wearing a face mask and a plastic bag pulls a cart loaded with bags of recyclables through the streets of Lower Manhattan in April.

London (CNN)All of the defining images of the coronavirus pandemic seem to feature one thing: plastic.

Surgical masks, gloves, protective equipment, body bags -- the Covid-19 crisis has spurred a rapid expansion in the production of desperately-needed plastic products, with governments racing to boost their stockpiles and regular citizens clamoring for their share of supplies.
Such production is necessary. But all that plastic ends up somewhere -- and environmental campaigners fear it is just the tip of a looming iceberg, with the pandemic causing a number of serious challenges to their efforts to reduce plastic pollution.
    From people discarding plastic gloves and masks in cities across the world to important regulations on the use of plastic being scrapped, rolled back or delayed, the problem has taken a back seat during one of the most significant public health crises of modern times.
    The implications of those trends could spell years of trouble for our already polluted oceans.
    "We know that plastic pollution is a global problem -- it existed before the pandemic," Nick Mallos of US-based NGO Ocean Conservancy tells CNN. "(But) we've seen a lot of industry efforts to roll back some of the great progress that's been made.
    "We need to be quite cautious about where we go, post-pandemic," Mallos adds.

    PPE adding to oceans' plastic burden

    The coronavirus crisis has sparked a personal protective equipment (PPE) arms race around the world as governments rush to stockpile masks, gloves, visors and gowns. The battle has proven so intense that some have resorted to international mudslinging.
    It comes as a growing number of countries encourage or order their citizens to wear face coverings in public -- once seen as a personal preference with minimal benefit, but now the preferred guidance in the US and much of Europe.
    And while the moves are important from a public health perspective, one immediate impact is clear on streets around the world.
    "Right outside my house there are discarded gloves and masks all over the neighborhood," says John Hocevar, oceans campaign director at Greenpeace USA.
    Discarded masks and gloves have become a common sight in cities around the world.
    "It's been raining here for two days, so these are very quickly washed down into the sewer. Here in Washington DC, they end up in the Anacostia River, out in the Chesapeake Bay, and then the Atlantic Ocean."
    PPE has become an additional threat to the world's oceans, which have been choking under the weight of plastic at a rapidly increasing rate.
    Global plastic production has quadrupled over the past four decades, a 2019 study found, with its authors warning that if that trend continues, the making of plastics will make up 15% of greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. By comparison, all of the world's forms of transportation now account for 15% of emissions.
    Other studies have estimated that some 8 million tons of plastic trash leak into the ocean annually, with the rate getting worse every year.
    But PPE presents very unique problems. "The structure of PPE will make it particularly hazardous for marine life," says Hocevar. "Gloves, like plastic bags, can appear to be jellyfish or other types of foods for sea turtles, for example. The straps on masks can present entangling hazards."
    Over time, those products break down and add to the vast collections of microplastics in our seas, air and food. And the irony is that, while we produce and discard plastic to fight one public health crisis, we may be slowly contributing to another.