COVID and Single-Use Plastics: How Environmental Visuals Build Change

The COVID-19 global pandemic is prompting increased consumption of single-use plastics while simultaneously disrupting recycling programs. How can photographers help this environmental crisis with visuals they create?

“Soon there may be more face masks than jellyfish in the Mediterranean Sea.” That’s the warning being made by Laurent Lombard, a diver and founder of the nonprofit Operation Clean Sea. His organization has been raising the alarm after finding discarded personal protection equipment (PPE) and hand sanitizer bottles during routine ocean cleanups, accumulating proof of the global pandemic causing single-use plastic pollution. 

With the world’s population suddenly seeking ways to protect itself from the transmission of COVID-19, the production of single-use PPE is at an all-time high. An estimated 129 billion face masks and 65 billion gloves are being used each month, according to a recent study in the Environment, Science & Technology journal. 

Increase in PPEThe production of single-use PPE is at an all-time high. We need to shift this. Image by Lukina Anna.

COVID and The Return of Single-Use Plastic

The onset of COVID-19 is also reversing many other hard-fought environmental victories against single-use plastics. In the several decades leading up to the onset of COVID-19, U.S. cities and states worked to reduce single-use waste through policies banning or taxing Styrofoam, plastic bags, straws, bottles, and cups, creating new social norms that have now all but come to a halt. Reusable and communal items have been banned to minimize person-to-person exposure, while many stores (whether by state mandate or personal decree) have reconsidered or delayed bans on single-use shopping bags.

Even IKEA is ditching its signature reusable yellow totes. It’s a move many corporations are justifying by claiming it keeps things more hygienic — a claim some researchers are calling a “red herring” since studies actually demonstrate single-use items are not necessarily safer than reusable alternatives when it comes to the transmission of COVID-19.

Environmental groups are urging the public to protect themselves with reusable products instead, declaring them safe and effective when used in conjunction with basic hand-washing hygiene. 

COVID and the Return of Single-Use PlasticCOVID has set back the plastic-free movement. Image by Scarc.

Why Environmental Visuals Depicting This Shift Matters

If images are one of the most enduring relics of any global event, then this moment might be remembered by Lombard’s eerie image of a disposable face mask floating above a patch of seagrass. Widely shared on social media, the photo captures a mounting environmental issue we’ll need to face now and in the post-COVID era. 

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Soon there may be more masks than jellyfish in the Mediterranean Sea, says Laurent Lombard, a diver and founder of the nonprofit Operation Clean Sea. His organization has been sounding the alarm about finding coronavirus-related waste — including PPE and hand sanitizer bottles — in its sea cleanup operations. The production of single-use PPE has drastically ramped up during the pandemic. About 129 billion face masks and 65 billion gloves are being used each month, according to a recent study in the Environment, Science & Technology journal. Environmental groups are urging the public to protect themselves against the virus with reusable products saying they can be used safely by employing basic hygiene like washing them properly. (📸:Operation Mer Propre)

A post shared by CNN Climate (@cnnclimate) on Jun 28, 2020 at 9:00am PDT

As photographers grapple with how to safely capture the world both factually and artistically, what is our responsibility to the environment and to human health? How can we normalize the use of reusable PPE in stock photography? How can we justify the use of plastics in our work to send a larger message? We sat down with three photographers to hear their thoughts. 

Using plastic in photos can help evoke emotion and inspire action

Like many artists, Offset photographer Laura BC lost most of her clients when lockdown began, and turned to conceptual self-portraiture to bolster her portfolio and keep herself creative. “I thought, if I can’t shoot people, I can express my feelings related to the situation.” she says. “I did some pictures related to the feelings of isolation where I wrapped myself in plastic.”

Using the material in her work helps Laura give visual voice to our often-fraught relationship with and dependence on plastics. In her most recent work, she uses masks and florals to create stock photographs that can be used to evoke emotions about our effects on the planet and our urge to experience nature during isolation.

COVID and Single-Use Plastic: Why Environmental Imagery Matters - Using Plastic in PhotosEnvironmental imagery can express emotions and frustrations with the world around them for artists. Image by Laura BC.

“It drives me mad to see masks dropped on the floor, on the beach…it’s so frustrating and very worrying,” she explains. “I had some dissected flowers at home. I love nature and showing those dissected flowers and myself with the mask on because of the worldwide pandemic, I wanted to transmit [the idea of] a messed up Planet Earth dying because of us.”

Integrating reusable masks into ongoing series helps captures the historical moment

New York City-based photographer Omar Z. Robles is best known for his street photography — specifically his series juxtaposing ballet dancers with the backdrop of the city — which came to a complete halt in the beginning of the pandemic. (Omar actually helped his fashion designer wife conceptualize a mask for bearded people during isolation, something that wasn’t on the market in any form.) As cases decline in NYC, the artist has picked the series back up and has had mixed thoughts — and responses — about featuring masks on his dancers. 

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Alexandra Hutchinson @a_ballerina_ #🎞💃#shotonfilm #dancein35mm #dancein35 #35mm

A post shared by Omar Z. Robles (@omarzrobles) on Sep 17, 2020 at 5:48pm PDT

“In the beginning I wasn’t sure if I wanted to portray the dancers using masks,” the Puerto Rico-born artist says. “During the first sessions I would allow them to take the masks off for the photos. However, it brought back a lot of the anxiety I was feeling in the beginning of the crisis, hence I opted to ask them to keep masks on at all times. Most dancers comply and even thank me for the consideration.”

Omar says he hadn’t even given thought to the idea of a reusable mask because most people in NYC he interacts with already opt for the reusable versions. However, the mixed reaction to his work on social media forced him to confront the political nature of the moment: “I’ve gotten both praise as well as negative remarks,” he says. “But as I told one of the commenters, in the end, it’s my choice and the dancers’.” 

Normalize reusable masks by using them in client work and stock photos

When depicting COVID in stock imagery, consider the environmental impact of the images you’re creating. How much single-use PPE are you featuring in your images? Create the images that you want customers to see and use around the world. Environmental images on stock have the power to shift the way we think about single-use as consumers around the world. Consider the lasting impact your image could have on a brand or businesses marketing campaign, and consider reusable alternatives to single-use plastic.

Normalize Reusable Masks in Stock ImagesDepict alternatives to disposable masks in your images. Image by Logra.

Header Image by Martina Badini.

Looking for more environmentally-conscious articles? Check out these articles:

A Brief Look at the Environmental Impact of COVIDShooting Environmentally Conscious Images That Tell StoriesCapturing Zero-Waste and Plastic Free Photography9 Household Brands That Want You To Rethink Single-Use PlasticDesign Inspiration: The Best Plastic-Free Packaging

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