Single-use plastics, which include plastic cups and surgical masks, have played a critical role in supporting society during COVID-19. Still, plastics and how to dispose of them remains a major issue the world is grappling with.
According to Thailand’s Environment Institute plastic waste has only increased during COVID-19 due to increased home food deliveries. Governments should ensure that waste managements systems are adequately supported to deal with both current and future plastic waste.
It is impossible to deny that single-use has been a lifesaver when fighting COVID-19, particularly for frontline health workers through the possibility to make glove ports quickly and cost effectively, for example. It has also made it possible for people to adhere to social distancing by facilitating home deliveries of basic goods, including food. It may even have played a key role in curbing transmission, by replacing reusable shopping bags and coffee cups in many cities due to fears that they would be impossible to rid of the virus.
However, images that have been widely circulated of sacks containing medical waste piling up outside hospitals as well as used personal protective equipment washing up on beaches all over the world highlight the dark side of single-use plastics. If humanity isn’t careful, short-term thinking during the pandemic may lead to a larger public health and environmental disaster in the future.
The proliferation of plastic waste and its pollution of the world’s waterways was already a key concern for a growing portion of the global population prior to COVID-19, with companies, policymakers, and international organisations such as the United Nations urged to act. Both local and national governments announced bans and taxes on single-use plastics, even though not all followed through on their pledges. Companies too invested in packaging that’s more environmentally friendly.
COVID-19 Threatens to Stall and Perhaps Even Reverse Progress
While it might take time to learn just how much more plastic waste was generated during the crisis, preliminary data is staggering. The Ministry of Ecology and Environment in China estimates that Wuhan hospitals generated over 240 tonnes of waste every day at the height of the outbreak, compared to 40 tonnes during normal times. Using that data, consulting firm Frost & Sullivan projects that the U.S. could generate 1 years’ worth of medical waste in 2 months due to the pandemic.
A similar increase in the waste generated can be seem among ordinary citizens. The daily production of face masks in China soared to 116 million in February 2020, which was 12 times higher than the month prior. Hundreds of tonnes of discarded masks were being collected every day from the public bins at the peak of the outbreak and it is almost impossible to tell how many more were discarded in household waste systems.
The Thailand Environmental Institute projects that plastic waste increased from 1,500 tonnes to 6,300 tonnes per day due to soaring home food deliveries. The problem was further compounded by the fact that many waste management services haven’t been running at full capacity due to the stay-at-home orders and social distancing rules.
Governments, however, cannot always do it alone. Developing countries often struggle with either broken or non-existent infrastructure for the management of waste. Since the COVID-19 crisis has highlighted the need for cooperative action, it is now time to change that.
Development banks, aid agencies and NGOs need to invest in the building of effective waste management systems as the global economy starts. Beyond attempting to keep plastic waste out of the oceans, such systems can ensure improved livelihoods, decent jobs, resulting in stronger and more sustainable economies moving forward.
COVID-19 has been described as a sudden shock, but some have also described it as a known risk that policymakers opted to ignore. The last thing the world now needs is to let other well-known threats to remain unaddressed. When it comes to plastic waste, warning bells have been ringing for the longest time.