If one thing has become certain since the inception of the novel coronavirus pandemic, it’s that so much of our future is unpredictable. However, after seven months of COVID-19 responses, mandated city lockdowns, and ongoing stay-at-home orders, experts have enough data to begin forecasting how the pandemic will impact the environment around us and the future of our planet. In the past few years, you may have heard the shocking prediction that there could be more plastic than fish (by weight) in the ocean by 2050. But now, as the COVID-19 pandemic generates what some have referred to as a “new” type of plastic pollution, environmentalists fear we will soon run the risk of having more masks than jellyfish in our oceans.
As many know, because we’ve contributed to this behavior ourselves, billions of global citizens and healthcare providers have taken to using personal protective equipment (PPE), such as face masks and gloves, as a preventative precaution to slow the spread of the virus. However, nobody could have prepared for the volumes of waste that the improper disposal of these products would create. So far, COVID-19 is estimated to have resulted in a global usage of 129 billion face masks and 65 billion gloves, most of which are not recyclable, every month.
As the virus continues to embroil the entire globe, and the demand for PPE skyrockets alongside it, this has inadvertently exposed the world’s inability to manage waste appropriately and worsened the growing plastic pollution problem the planet already faces. On the bright side, if humans and organizations begin to recognize the harmful effects that improper disposal poses on the environment and start to take decisive action, there is hope that change can be made in an effort to create a more sustainable future. In this blog post, we dive more into the increased plastic pollution problem as a result of the pandemic, additional areas of impact, and how humanity can recognize and take necessary steps to alleviate the problem before it’s too late.
Increased Plastic Pollution due to COVID-19 Pandemic
To reduce the transmission of the virus, health care workers and facilities around the world have collectively bought and used millions of PPE products. According to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, hospitals in Wuhan, the initial epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak, produced more than 240 tons of single-use plastic medical waste (such as disposable face masks, gloves, and gowns), per day, at the peak of the pandemic—6x more than the daily average prior to the pandemic. Also, scientists and public-health officials recommended that the general public start using PPE, including face masks and medical gloves to protect themselves and others from the respiratory illness, which also added to this growing global waste stream.
While face masks and gloves, in addition to other preventive measures, help to slow the spread of the virus, they also lead to a flood of plastic pollution—An issue that our struggling planet already faces. This is because most protective equipment is designed for single-use purposes to limit the risk of contamination, especially when dealing with patients exposed to the virus. A recent study from the University College London found that, if every person in the United Kingdom used one single-use face mask each day for a year, it would create 66,000 tons of contaminated plastic waste and 10xmore climate change impact than wearing reusable masks. However, since PPE is effective in protecting people against the spread of viruses, it has been easy for many people to ignore the colossal impact of using and disposing of these items in such large quantities.
"The glove or mask that you take off and casually disregard... could easily be the glove or mask that kills a whale"— BBC News (World) (@BBCWorld) July 8, 2020
As the world battles coronavirus, more and more protective equipment is ending up in the seahttps://t.co/jBPDE7xZrF pic.twitter.com/1nuDAtBMdX
Furthermore, nearly all personal protective equipment is made of non-recyclable plastics. After the equipment is done being used, it is just as quickly thrown away, which inevitably leads to an accumulation of this plastic material in landfill and eventual pollution in the environment. “Other than burning them [PPE], there is nothing really we can do. It’s designed to be waste,” said Sander Defruyt, head of the plastics team at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. Once plastic enters the environment, it can take hundreds, or even thousands of years to decompose. Due to the nature of plastic, an estimated 79 percent of this material has already accumulated in our natural environment and landfills prior to the pandemic. However, that number is likely to increase in the near future due to the problem identified above. A recent WWF report estimated that even if only one percent of masks are disposed of incorrectly, 10 million will end up in the natural environment per month.
Given these figures, environmentalists have good reason to be concerned about the risks that could arise from coronavirus waste and what else is to come. “When we talk about medical disposal in the environment during COVID-19, we tend to think about latex and vinyl gloves, which are not different to a plastic bag,” Gerardo Peña, a marine biologist with Ninth Wave Global, said. “We also have masks which, due the great variety and amount, are almost impossible to assess in terms of direct damage on the environment. The polymeric, plastic-based masks will last decades before nature can find a way to get rid of them.”
Moreover, Nick Mallos, senior director of Ocean Conservancy’s Trash Free Seas program suggests, “As we navigate the ongoing pandemic, we are at a crossroads: continue with business as usual despite colossal upheavals to our plastic waste reality, or take this opportunity to change the plastics paradigm and build better, stronger waste systems. The choice is obvious.” It’s clear to see that in many ways, the pandemic has exposed just how critical properly managing our waste and recycling truly is.
ADDITIONAL AREAS OF IMPACT
Unfortunately, PPE isn’t the only form of plastic waste triggered by the pandemic. Now that people are spending extra time at home, many individuals have begun ordering goods online more frequently. According to the U.S. Online Grocery Survey 2020, about two-thirds of consumers surveyed said they’re now buying more products online, and 40.5 percent of them reported buying food online more than they had previously. As a result, additional packaging is used to keep the products safe during transportation, leading to a surge in another type of plastic waste. Along the same line, takeout orders have also increased rapidly amidst stay-at-home orders. Research from NPD Group found that online orders have in fact, increased 127 percent compared to this time last year.
These newly developed behaviors brought on by COVID-19 are contributing to the growing use of single-use plastics and, according to Scientific American, 2020 is on pace to see 30 percent more waste than 2019. This is a shame because many businesses, cities, and states, were making progress towards the reduction of single use-plastics prior to the pandemic. Sadly, as one would expect, COVID-19 has stalled the development of plastic-bans and essentially reversed any progress that has been made on this front. The World Bank notes that, at least for now, COVID-19 seems to be shifting the tide towards single-use plastics again. This has been made evident by watching businesses pause plastic bag bans and prohibit the use of reusable bags to slow the spread of the virus. We’ve also seen some businesses put sustainability initiatives on hold altogether. For these reasons, and the aforementioned nature of PPE, the pandemic has significantly escalated the plastic waste issue in a way that requires immediate attention.
HOW TO TAKE ACTION
All in all, it’s clear the waste problem throughout the globe is continuing to worsen and the pandemic has only intensified this issue while proving just how ill-equipped the world is to deal with the matter. As we navigate this unchartered territory, organizations and individuals must transform the way they manage their waste in order to make a lasting impact, or risk creating irreversible damages to the environment and getting left behind by consumers. In fact, in a recent article, Forbes revealed that 87 percent of consumers will purchase a product because a company advocated for an issue they cared about, and 76 percent will refuse to buy a company’s products or services upon learning it supported an issue contrary to their beliefs. On a more positive note, despite the new challenges presented by COVID-19, some businesses may choose to look at the pandemic as an opportunity to prioritize a revamp of their waste systems, which can not only make an impact on the planet but also a company’s bottom line. Below is some guidance on how to achieve better waste systems and practices.
For starters, organizations must take responsibility for the lifecycle of their products. We currently live in a society where everything is disposable, from plastic take out containers to surgical masks and gloves. Our ecosystems can no longer keep up with this ‘take, make, waste’ model, in which natural resources are extracted, turned into products, sold to consumers, and used until they are discarded as waste. One of the reasons for such an influx of coronavirus waste is due to the linear supply chain model. Rather than leveraging the typical linear business model, a more environmentally-friendly approach is possible: The circular economy model. By following this method, businesses can design out waste and pollution, keep products and materials in use, and regenerate natural systems. Adidas, Old Navy, and Rent the Runway are just a few examples of retailers that have displayed circularity during the pandemic by creating reusable masks to slow the spread of the virus and reduce waste. Beyond designing out PPE waste, companies must begin embracing a circular economy in the long run to further impact the planet through more sustainable business practices.
Secondly, businesses must remain focused on decreasing their environmental impact. As mentioned above, many localities are taking extreme precautions in an effort to flatten the curve and, as part of doing so, some businesses have taken safety measures to temporarily pause the ban of single-use plastic bags. The Surfrider Foundation states, “While we recognize that some legislators may decide to temporarily pause or delay implementation of bag laws during the global pandemic, if these modifications become permanent they could reverse progress in the fight against single-use plastics and may have long-term ramifications in creating a more sustainable society.” Generally speaking, however, many environmental officials remain firm in advising consumers to reduce the amount of plastic they use and recycle said plastic when possible. This way, less litter ends up in landfill and fewer toxins are released into the environment overall.
Lastly, businesses and individuals should prioritize correctly disposing of their COVID-19 waste, whether that includes household materials or PPE. In May, the EPA released an article encouraging Americans to recycle all of their materials and stated that as more individuals are staying home, they are generating more waste than usual, much of which can still be recycled by the current systems in place. Some tips they shared related to this initiative included:
- Check with local recycling haulers to understand what materials they accept right now and recycle what you can from home
- Break down shipping and food boxes, rinse out containers and cans, keep them dry and clean, and put them in your curbside bin to be recycled
- Keep disinfectant wipes, gloves, masks, other PPE and medical waste out of recycling bins to avoid contamination
Additionally, businesses and individuals must continue to do their part and reuse, reduce, and recycle during the pandemic. We encourage you to keep following the recommendations of OSHA and the CDC when it comes to proper protocols, as well as the EPA guidance above, and educate yourself frequently with the new information that becomes available regarding this topic and others related to health and safety when disposing of PPE or regular waste items.
We can no longer beat around the bush: Humanity must transform its waste disposal habits, or risk causing irreversible damage to our local environment and the overall planet. However, one silver lining to come from this crisis is the chance for society, and the businesses within it, to recognize opportunities to make a positive impact through better waste practices that will drive lasting change. Now, more than ever, is the time to start planning for how your business will evolve its waste disposal methods. Hopefully, by reading this post your business has gathered some tips for taking action, whether it's by transitioning towards a circular economy, overhauling your recycling process, or decreasing plastic consumption. In the comment section below, let us know how your business plans to take action. After reading this blog, if you’re interested in a custom solution to help your business properly and efficiently dispose of its waste, don’t hesitate to reach out to us here.