The Plastic Pandemic Is Only Getting Worse During COVID-19

Single-use plastics such as plastic cups and surgical masks have become popular during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, using plastics and their disposal processes are still a global challenge. Plastic waste has increased during the 2020 pandemic largely because of food delivery uptake. Governments should ensure that waste management processes are well-supported to handle the current and future plastic waste. 

Single-use plastics have actually been a lifesaver in the pandemic era, especially for a lot of frontline workers. First, it has improved adherence to social distancing by allowing delivery of basic goods at home, especially food. It also reduced transmission rates by replacing reusable coffee cups as well as shopping bags since most people are afraid that the virus might stick to these items. 

Yet, there is a dark side to the increased use of single-use plastics. For instance, there have been widely circulated pictures of plastic sacks of medical waste piling up near hospitals. Also, personal protective equipment has started washing up in coastal waters and beaches. Such short-term thinking during the COVID-19 era could lead to a larger public-health and environmental challenge in the future.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic started spreading like wildfire, people were worried about the proliferation of plastic waste and its pollution in the water. Companies, policymakers and the UN (among other international organisations) were urged to start taking action. Various local governments and nations banned the use of single-use plastics and implemented higher taxes on these products. Unfortunately, not all the nations followed through with these pledges. Most of the larger companies started investing in environmentally friendly packaging. 

However, the COVID-19 health crisis has started reversing the progress. It will take a while before people can identify how much additional plastic waste was generated during the pandemic. However, the preliminary data is staggering. At the height of the outbreak in Wuhan, statistics reveal that hospitals produced at least 240 tons of waste every day compared to the 40 tons that were used during regular times. Various consultants reveal that the US could end up generating at least a year’s worth of such medical waste in a shorter period (about 2 months) due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Ordinary citizens are also producing more plastic waste. In February, China experienced an increase in the daily production of face masks to 116 million which was at least 12 times higher than the previous month. During the peak of the outbreak, hundreds of tons of masks were discarded and collected from public bins. There is no exact count of how many masks were discarded as household waste.  In Thailand, plastic waste also increased from 1500 tons and reached a high of 6,300 tons per day due to the increased deliveries of food.

Remember, numerous waste-management services are not operating at full capacity due to social distancing rules and the government’s stay-at-home orders. Of course, governments can’t meet all the mandates alone. Numerous countries have broken or non-existent waste management processes. It’s time to change that since COVID-19 pandemic has brought about the need for cooperative action. The global economy is still restarting so development banks, aid agencies and NGOs need to invest in effective waste-management systems. Besides clearing plastic waste from the ocean, these systems should provide better livelihoods and decent jobs to various individuals. As such, we should expect stronger and sustainable economies in the long-term. 

COVID-19 caught the world by shock. Actually, there are a few policymakers who chose to ignore it. The world doesn’t need other well-known threats to remain unaddressed. It’s time to start acting now before we are caught unawares by another pandemic that might ruin our lives forever. Everyone has a role to play, including the larger corporations.

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