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 might have curbed transmission, by replacing reusable coffee cups and shopping bags.
But images of plastic sacks of medical waste outside hospitals and of used personal protective equipment floating in the sea and washing up on beaches illustrate the dark side of single-use plastics. Short-term thinking during the pandemic could lead to an even larger environmental and public-health calamity.
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 pandemic, with policymakers, companies, and international organisations (such as the UN) urged to act. 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 environmentally friendly packaging.
Now, however, the Covid-19 crisis threatens to stall, or even reverse, this progress.
Though it will take time to learn how much additional plastic waste has been generated during the pandemic, preliminary data is staggering. In China, the ministry of ecology and environment estimates that hospitals in Wuhan produced 215 tonnes of waste daily at the height of the outbreak, compared with 35 tonnes in normal times. Based on this data, the consulting firm Frost & Sullivan predicts that the US could generate a year’s worth of medical waste in just two months because of Covid-19.
A similar increase in waste was produced by the public. In China, daily production of face masks soared to 116m in February, 12 times more than the previous month.
Hundreds of tonnes 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 1,350 tonnes to 5,700 tonnes per day, owing to soaring home deliveries of food.
Compounding the problem, many waste-management services have not been operating at full capacity, owing to social-distancing rules and stay-at-home orders. In the US, recycling collection has been suspended in many places, including parts of Miami-Dade and Los Angeles counties.
In the UK, fly-tipping has risen 300% during the pandemic. In some countries, companies that are advancing innovative methods of recycling and of reusing waste plastics are reporting reduced amounts of plastic coming through waste streams, suggesting that a growing volume of plastic is ending up in landfills or leaking into the environment.
During the pandemic, it is essential to protect the vulnerable, ensure that health workers have the tools and support they need to do their jobs safely, prevent healthcare systems from becoming overwhelmed, and avoid additional waves of infection.
However, in meeting these imperatives, we cannot lose sight of the other — perhaps greater — challenges facing humanity, including the environmental and public-health risks generated by excessive plastic waste.
For starters, companies all along the plastic value chain, from manufacturers to retailers, should show their commitment to public health and welfare by expanding and accelerating their efforts to end plastic waste. Those that step up to the challenge of environmental stewardship, by contributing to the creation of a circular economy, will reap a rich bounty of public trust and profitability.
Governments must recognise the crucial role of waste-management services and their workers in the transition to a sustainable future, and allocate Covid-19 spending accordingly. Such efforts would advance multiple sustainable development goals (SDG), including SDG 11 (which calls for cities to ensure effective waste management), SDG 12 (reduce waste generation through prevention, reduction, recycling, and reuse), and SDG 14 (reduce marine pollution of all kinds).
But governments cannot always do it alone. Many developing countries struggle with broken waste-management infrastructure or have none. With the Covid-19 crisis highlighting the need for co-ordinated action, now is the moment to change that.
As the global economy restarts, aid agencies, development banks, and non-governmental organisations should invest in building effective waste-management systems. Beyond helping to keep plastic waste out of our oceans, such systems can provide jobs and improve livelihoods, resulting in stronger, more sustainable economies.
Covid-19 is often described as a sudden shock. In fact, some say it was a known risk that policymakers chose to ignore. The last thing the world needs is to allow other well-known threats to remain unaddressed.
And, when it comes to plastic waste, the warning bells have been ringing loud and clear for years.