There is no denying that single-use plastic has been a lifesaver in the fight against COVID-19, especially for frontline health workers. It has also facilitated adherence to social-distancing rules, by enabling home delivery of basic goods, especially food. And it may have helped to curb transmission, by replacing reusable coffee cups and shopping bags in many cities over fears that the virus could stick to them.
But widely circulated images of plastic sacks of medical waste piling up outside hospitals, and used personal protective equipment floating in coastal waters and washing up on the world’s beaches, illustrate yet again the dark side of single-use plastics. If we are not careful, short-term thinking during the pandemic could lead to an even larger environmental and public-health calamity in the future.
Of course, the proliferation of plastic waste – and its pollution of the world’s waterways – already was a major concern for a growing share of the world population before the COVID-19 pandemic, with policymakers, companies, and international organizations like the United Nations urged to take action. Some national and local governments implemented taxes and bans on single-use plastics (though not all have followed through on their pledges). Major companies invested in more environmentally friendly packaging.
Now, however, the COVID-19 crisis threatens to stall and even reverse progress.
Though it will take time to learn precisely how much additional plastic waste has been generated during the crisis, preliminary data are staggering. In China, the Ministry of Ecology and Environment estimates that hospitals in Wuhan produced more than 240 tons of waste daily at the height of the outbreak, compared with 40 tons during normal times. Based on these data, the consulting firm Frost & Sullivan predicts that the United States could generate an entire year’s worth of medical waste in just two months because of COVID-19.
A similar uptick in waste can be seen among ordinary citizens. In China, daily production of face masks soared to 116 million in February, 12 times higher than the previous month. Hundreds of tons of discarded masks were being collected daily from public bins alone during the outbreak’s peak; there is no telling how many more were being discarded in household waste systems. According to the Thailand Environment Institute, plastic waste has increased from 1,500 tons to 6,300 tons per day, owing to soaring home deliveries of food.