COVID-19 Pandemic Leads a Worrying Surge in Plastic and Medical Waste
Tue, April 20, 2021

COVID-19 Pandemic Leads a Worrying Surge in Plastic and Medical Waste



Several of our ecosystems are facing “irreparable damage” from millions of tons of plastic waste. Previous reports reveal that about eight million tons of plastic waste alone are dumped into the oceans every year. This is equivalent to setting five garbage bags full of trash on every foot of coastline across the world. The increasing plastics in our environment are not only harmful to our planet but also to every living organism living on it. 

According to National Geographic, an American pay television network and flagship channel that is owned by National Geographic Partners, nearly 700 species are known to have been affected by plastics. Many marine species are heavily affected by plastics. Most of their deaths in the past few years have been caused by entanglement or starvation. Microplastics have also been found in more than 100 aquatic species such as fish, shrimp, and mussels.

Still, large populations choose to use plastics regardless of their destructive impacts on our environment. Reports show that production increased exponentially over the past few decades, from 2.3 million tons in 1950 to 448 million tons by 2015. It is expected to double by 2050. People use them because they are easily accessible and are designed to last a long time. In fact, all the plastic ever created still exists in some form today.

A 2017 study revealed that the total volume of all plastic ever produced is at 8.3 billion tons. Of this number, about 6.3 billion tons are now waste. Around 79% of this is in landfill or the natural environment. According to BBC, an operational business division of the British Broadcasting Corporation responsible for the gathering and broadcasting of news and current affairs, one of the most common types of plastic waste is drink bottles. About 480 billion plastic bottles were sold globally in 2016, equivalent to a million bottles per minute.



Plastic Waste During Coronavirus Pandemic

Unfortunately, our problem with plastic waste might get worse as the coronavirus pandemic continues to impact our daily living and economy. The demand for plastics across the world has grown since the start of the crisis. Recent reports revealed an increasing demand in single-use water bottles, takeout food packaging, and personal protective equipment (PPE), leading to a surge in plastic waste. 

The decrease in plastic waste due to reduced collection rates, global decline in economic activity, and a halt in container redemption programs have been significantly muted by the needs associated with the pandemic. These declines wouldn’t affect the increasing global demand of plastics, experts said. Some materials that have been on the rise since the pandemic started include PET in single-use plastic water bottles and medical face shields; polymers polypropylene, which is used in life-saving medical equipment such as N-95 masks and in takeout food packaging, and polyethylene used in Tyvek protective suits.

Even the recycling process of these plastics are heavily affected by the pandemic. According to Forbes, a global media company focusing on business, investing, technology, entrepreneurship, leadership, and lifestyle, it has caused significant limitations on recycling and municipal waste services across the world. Rachel Meidl, an environmental expert at Rice University's Baker Institute for Public Policy, said that municipalities, airlines, and other businesses have already suspended their collection and recycling programs. "The pandemic, coupled with the oil price collapse and a global economic slowdown, challenges the world's stated desire for investments to keep pace with the UN Sustainable Development Goals and the aspiration of a circular economy," she said. 



Many countries that have single-use plastic bans have also decided to allow single-use plastics again due to concerns for safety and cross-contamination of the virus. "(It) underscores the ignorance society has on the unintended consequences of bans implemented without systematic and strategic assessments of plastic waste and their potential replacements,” Meidl said.

According to the Daily Mail, a British daily middle-market newspaper published in London in a tabloid format, Meidl said that the net effect of recycling efforts being put in the hold was that more waste and recyclables have been disposed of via landfill and incineration. She said that a more systemic approach to combat the 'extensive and interconnected' problem of global waste is what we needed instead of implementing product-focused plastic bans. “COVID-19 has not eliminated the need to propel the recycling industry to become more economical and sustainable,” she concluded. 

Groceries and supermarkets are also seen turning back to disposable bags as some people fear that reusable bags could spread the disease. Environmental advocates also said that protecting public health doesn’t have to compromise the efforts of managing plastic waste. “If stores, particularly workers, want to keep themselves as safe as possible and limit the bags coming in because they don’t know if people wash them, certainly a temporary pause on that, I think that’s understandable,” Ivy Schlegel, a senior research specialist for Greenpeace USA, said. However, that “pause” shouldn’t be permanent.



Medical Waste During This Crisis

Experts said that the pandemic is leading medical facilities to produce more waste that must be treated as hazardous and disposed of accordingly. Wuhan hospitals, for instance, generated six times as much medical waste at the peak of the outbreak as they did before the crisis began. According to The Verge, an American technology news website operated by Vox Media, their daily medical waste has reached 24 metric tons by now, which is about the weight of an adult blue whale.

Medical waste company Stericycle, which handled 1.8 billion pounds of medical waste globally in 2018, hasn’t released any statistics about the medical waste in the US. They believe that their company has the capacity to handle the swell and may add shifts to the company’s 50 treatment centers in the US if necessary. “It’s a rapidly changing environment right now and forecasting volumes is challenging. We are closely monitoring the situation with all relevant agencies to determine the next steps,” Stericycle Vice President of Corporate Communications Jennifer Koenig said. 

While there is a growing market for recycling plastics, glass, metal, paper, and other materials generated within operations linked to the pandemic, reports show that 85% of all medical waste is incinerated. These reports also state that they are safe. About 25% of healthcare waste generated from US facilities are clean, noninfectious plastics, amounting to one million tons per year of potential opportunity for valuable polymers to reenter the supply chain.