COVID-19 is a scourge for humanity, but it hasn’t been kind to the planet either.
Our efforts to prevent contamination have resulted in an unavoidable increase in single-use plastics. How much more are we just now beginning to understand.
This month, a team of researchers from Nanjing University’s School of Atmospheric Sciences in China and UC San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography published an estimate, based on scientific models, that 8 million tons of pandemic-related plastic was produced worldwide in August. Furthermore, they estimate that about 26,000 tons have or will end up in rivers, oceans, beaches and eventually the bellies of marine animals. By the end of this year, their model predicts that another 3 million tons of pandemic-related plastic waste will be used.
While some of the waste was generated by the increased online sales of various consumer goods, about 70% of the extra plastic came, unsurprisingly, from medical waste such as disposable gloves, gowns and masks. (Another report estimates that more than 1.5 million disposable masks will end up in the ocean by 2020. Ugh.) The researchers say Asian countries are the source of 72% of the pandemic’s plastic, but that doesn’t just make this a problem for Asia.
For starters, once plastic waste ends up in the ocean, it becomes a problem for everyone. But also because the US, and California in particular, is a huge producer of plastic waste, much of which is shipped to poorer Asian countries that lack the infrastructure to dispose of it properly.
While the increase of 8 million tons is a pittance on top of the 300 million tons of single-use plastic produced in the typical, non-pandemic year, it is a trend that is heading in the wrong direction. (Well, maybe not for petroleum companies, who are counting on increased plastic production to offset dwindling oil sales. Most plastic is made from fossil fuels.)
There is no reasonable substitute for plastic in many medical applications, especially safety equipment. That’s why it’s imperative that we focus on reducing single-use, non-essential plastic — you know, bags and cups and the layers upon layers of plastic wrap that encase so many products that can be found in any store.
That will be the focus of the debate next year when Californians are asked to vote on a groundbreaking measure to reduce plastic packaging during the November 2022 vote. The measure would impose a penny tax on every plastic-wrapped product sold in California. , and would also require the state to pass rules to reduce plastic packaging waste by 25% by 2030. (If this sounds familiar, it’s because lawmakers considered a reduction in plastic packaging for three years in a row, but never gathered the votes to do so.)
This is a conversation that should take place in every state and every country. Plastic waste is not just a litter problem, it is an environmental disaster that is already underway and will remain with us long after the pandemic has ended without major intervention.