COVID-19 Pandemic Blows a Major Setback for Efforts to Curb Plastic Waste

A facemask on the ground

As the world is grappling to adjust to coronavirus, the need for disposable protective equipment and food containers has grown exponentially. It’s a necessary precaution, but without a circular system for our waste (and plastic waste especially) mismanaged waste has its own set of human and environmental health impacts.

And as CNN explained, “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.

Why This Matters: For ecosystems and oceans especially, excess plastic waste from COVID-19 brings an additional threat, especially when they’re already choking on plastic. As DW explained, Southeast Asia is one of the biggest sources of plastic waste from land to the ocean, and Thailand is among the top five contributors. In January, Thailand placed a ban on single-use plastic, and was looking to reduce its plastic waste by 30% this year but the COVID-19 pandemic has seen waste increase by 62% in April alone. That’s a major setback on efforts to act on the plastic crisis. 

Multiplying Effect: The situation in Thailand is indicative of how plastic waste can quickly accumulate in nations that lack adequate recycling and waste disposal infrastructure. And even in places where littering is rare, like Hong Kong, there are dozens of other ways masks and litter can reach the sea. Masks, gloves and other PPE items can easily fall out of pockets or blow away and end up in the ocean.

And when these items blow into the ocean, a recent study showed that when plastic is left in the water long enough and algae and bacteria grow on it, it actually smells like food to turtles.

Sustainable Choices During a Pandemic: There are innovations underway that can make PPE equipment more sustainable. DW also reported that in the US, the car manufacturer Ford is producing reusable gowns from air bag materials that can be washed up to 50 times, while the University of Nebraska is also testing to see whether ultraviolet light will decontaminate and prolong the life of medical masks, and therefore, reduce waste.

But all this shows that we have to prepare for pandemics much better than we did for this one, including how we protect the environment during outbreaks. 

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