Covid-19 ‘has created 8.4 million tonnes of mismanaged plastic waste’

·3-min read

The world had generated about 8.4 million tonnes of “mismanaged” plastic waste from the pandemic as of late August, with nearly 26,000 tonnes entering oceans, according to a study that highlights the problem of dealing with medical waste in Covid-19 epicentres.

Researchers estimated that 87 per cent of the extra mismanaged plastic waste came from hospitals, based on the number of coronavirus inpatients and the typical amount of medical waste generated per person for 193 countries. Personal protective equipment (PPE) use by individuals contributed 8 per cent, packaging 5 per cent and test kits 0.3 per cent.

As of August 23, Asia had reported 31 per cent of the global Covid-19 cases yet generated 46 per cent of the extra plastic waste that ended up in the environment, compared with North America’s 22 per cent of infections and only 6 per cent of the extra waste.

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“This reflects the lower treatment level of medical waste in many developing countries, such as India, Brazil and China, compared with developed countries with large numbers of cases in North America and Europe, for example, the United States and Spain,” the researchers said.

“The mismanaged plastic waste generated from individual PPE [including face masks, gloves and face shields] is even more skewed towards Asia because of the large mask-wearing population.”

They said Asia also produced the greatest amount of waste from pandemic-era online shopping packaging.

The team, from Nanjing University in China and the University of California San Diego in the US, published their findings in the peer-reviewed journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America on Monday.

Increased demand for single-use plastic from the pandemic had worsened “an already out-of-control global plastic waste problem”, the scientists said.

“This poses a long-lasting problem for the ocean environment and is mainly accumulated on beaches and coastal sediments,” they said.

The team projected that at the end of the century, almost all of the plastics related to the pandemic would end up deposited in beaches or the seabed, potentially damaging sea-floor ecosystems.

Plastics released into the sea were able to travel long distances, and entangle, trap or be eaten by animals that could be injured or die as a result, they said.

Their report warned that plastic debris could “facilitate species invasion and transport of contaminants” including the coronavirus.

“This offers lessons that waste management requires structural changes,” they wrote. “The revoking or delaying of the bans on single-use plastic may complicate plastic waste control after the pandemic.”

The researchers called for better plastic waste collection, classification, treatment and recycling, and said greener materials were needed to help reduce the amount of waste generated by the pandemic.

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