Explained: How COVID-19 contributed to plastic pollution and overwhelmed waste management system

The increased demand of single-use plastic during COVID-19 has increased pressure on the already out-of-control problem, generating 8.4m tonnes of waste from 193 countries since the start of the pandemic, according to new research.

The research also revealed that plastic waste weighing 25,900 tonnes from the COVID-19 pandemic, leaked into the ocean, said Yiming Peng and Peipei Wu from Nanjing University, the authors of Magnitude and impact of pandemic-associated plastic waste published in the online journal PNAS.

In the past year, in the midst of an unfolding catastrophe like the coronavirus pandemic, we've also added more plastic to our daily use: PPE kits, gloves, face shields, N95 masks.

Impact of plastic pollution on environment

Inadequate plastic waste management has resulted in an alarming accumulation of plastic in soil and aquatic ecosystems. For example, it is estimated that approximately 1.56 billion face masks ended up in the oceans in 2020.

"This poses a long-lasting problem for the ocean environment and is mainly accumulated on beaches and coastal sediments," added the study.

The team led by researchers at Nanjing University in China and University of California (UC) San Diego, US, used a newly developed ocean plastic numerical model to quantify the impact of the pandemic on plastic discharge from land sources.

They incorporated data from the start of the pandemic in 2020 through August 2021, finding that most of the global plastic waste entering the ocean is coming from Asia, with hospital waste representing the bulk of the land discharge.

Overwhelmed waste management programs

The study also stressed the need for better management of medical waste in developing countries.

According to News-Medical, the estimated volume of plastic waste reached over 530 Mt in the first seven months of the COVID-19 outbreak (December 2019–June 2020), suggesting plastic waste totals for 2020 would be at least double those of 2019 when 400 Mt of waste was produced globally. Moreover, large pieces of plastic waste, (including masks,) can break into microplastics and nanoplastics.

The accidental ingestion of these micro/nano plastics by marine and freshwater organisms, alongside the unexpected accumulation in terrestrial plants and animals, and transport in the atmosphere as "plastic-rain" or "plastic-smog", raise concerns for the safety of human food, drinking water, and breathable air. In addition, micro-/nano-plastics can serve as potential vectors for pathogens and toxic contaminants, leading to injury and death, with direct negative effects on biodiversity.

Plastic pollution has been labeled as a driver of environmental change. Production, transportation, and recycling could emit large amounts of greenhouse gases, clearly exhibiting a clear deviation from climate change mitigation.

Moreover, the consumption of plastic packaging by takeaway services, e-commerce outlets and express delivery industries increased extensively with social distancing requirements. Takeaway and home delivery services generated an additional 1.21 Mt of plastic waste from April to May 2020 during the lockdown in Singapore alone.

The marked increase in PPE waste has overwhelmed waste management programs globally, as used plastic PPE must be disposed of suitably to prevent cross-contamination. Potentially contaminated plastics are restricted at recycling centres, meaning incineration and landfilling are being widely prioritised. Such disposal methods are a clear deviation from the goals of plastic circular economy and sustainable development.


To begin with, it’s time to improve transparency in the plastic production system.

There is not enough data on which types and amounts of plastics are imported and exported between countries, as well as on how those plastics are used, meaning we don’t always know precisely where most waste is generated. A monitoring system that can properly track how plastics flow across different countries will help us to better understand where regulations may be needed.

For example, blind spots in plastic data collection can be illuminated using track-and-trace technology able to follow a piece of plastic from its origin, along many trade routes, to the end of its journey as refuse or recycling.

Analysing hundreds of thousands of these journeys will help us develop a deeper understanding of the complex political and economic power dynamics that influence plastic supply chains across the planet.

What’s more, we must promote sustainable plastic waste management within countries by making it economically achievable to recycle plastics, even in places with little recycling infrastructure.

To do this, there need to be significant changes in regulations to ensure that companies make the effort to recycle where possible, as well as incentives to achieve recycling targets and establish plants.

In the UK, the plastic packaging tax, due to be introduced in April 2022, aims to increase the demand for recycled plastic. By taxing plastic packaging that contains less than 30 percent recycled material at £0.20 per kilogram, the government is creating a clear incentive for businesses to take advantage of recycled plastic when planning their products’ packages.

Similarly, in the EU, the plastic packaging levy introduced in January 2021 mandates member states to pay a tax of £0.68 per kilogram on non-recycled plastic packaging.

Although it may be a few years before the effects of these taxes become clear, both are likely to spur improvements in plastic recycling rates while attracting investment into better recycling facilities. But if measures like these are to be successful, monitoring systems need to be put in place to make sure companies aren’t finding ways to dodge the laws.

With inputs from agencies

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