It goes without saying that single-use plastics, including plastic cups and surgical masks, have been key in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic. However, despite the benefits offered by these plastics, plastic pollution is still a major global problem. According to Thailand's Environment Institute, there has been a significant increase in plastic waste during COVID-19, thanks to a surge in demand for home deliveries of food, personal protective equipment and glove ports. Governments need to ensure that waste management systems are adequately supported to effectively deal with current and future plastic waste.
Single-Use Plastics in the Fight Against the Virus
Single-use plastic has been of great use in the fight against COVID-19, particularly for frontline health workers. In addition, it has made it easier to adhere to social-distancing rules, by enabling the delivery of basic goods to people's homes, especially food. By minimising the use of reusable shopping bags and coffee cups, single-use plastic may have helped to slow down the transmission as it is believed the virus could stick to the cups and shopping bags. However, there is a dark side to single-use plastics.
Short-Term Gain, Long-Term Pain
Currently, pictures are being circulated online of plastic sacks of medical waste piling up outside health facilities and already used protective gear floating on coastal waters and settling on different beaches across the world. Without proper precaution, short-term planning during the pandemic can lead to an even more devastating environmental and public health emergency in the future. The buildup of plastic waste and subsequent pollution of the world's waterways was already a major issue of concern for a great section of the world population pre-COVID. Policymakers, companies, and international organisations such as the United Nations were being urged to take appropriate measures to help alleviate the situation. Various local and national governments put in place bans and taxes on single-use plastics. However, not all governments have followed through on their pledges. Leading companies put more focus on environmentally friendly packaging. However, as it stands now, the COVID-19 crisis is threatening to hamper progress and even undo what has been achieved thus far.
How Much Plastic Waste is Created by the Pandemic?
While more time is still required to find out exactly how much additional plastic waste has been created during the pandemic, findings from preliminary data are shocking. The Ministry of Ecology and Environment in China estimates that Wuhan hospitals generated more than 240 tons of waste each day during the height of the outbreak. This is in comparison to the 40 tons of waste produced during normal times. In reference to these data, Frost & Sullivan, a consulting firm, predicts that, due to COVID-19, the US could generate a year's worth of medical waste in just two months. A slight increase in waste generation can also be observed among ordinary citizens. The daily production of face masks in China spiked to 116 million in February, indicating an increase of 1200% from January. Hundreds of tons of disposed of masks were collected each day from public bins at the height of the outbreak. It is hard to tell how many more masks were being discarded in household waste systems. Thailand Environment Institute reports that plastic waste has increased from 1,500 tons to 6,300 tons per day, thanks to the spike in home deliveries of food.
A Way Forward
The problem has been worsened by the fact that most waste-management services haven't been able to operate at full capacity due to the social distancing rules and stay-at-home orders. However, it is important to keep in mind that governments can't always do it alone. Most developing countries are struggling with non-existent or inadequate waste-management infrastructure. The effects of the COVID-19 crisis have shed a light on the need for cooperative action. With the global economy reopening, development banks, aid agencies, and NGOs will need to invest in establishing more effective waste-management systems. Apart from helping to avoid plastic waste from ending up in our oceans, these systems will also help to provide employment, improved livelihoods, which will lead to stronger and more sustainable economies in the long run.
While the COVID-19 has been described as a sudden catastrophic event, some claim that it was a known risk that policymakers chose to intentionally ignore. The world can't afford to let other well-known risks to stay unaddressed. Furthermore, in regards to plastic waste, there is no better time to take action.