The Environmental Cost of COVID-19: A Plastic Pandemic

Angela Zhu, Grade 12

While the COVID-19 virus has halted economies and separated families around the world, it has unintended yet devastating consequences on the environment in the form of plastic. From masks to gloves, the personal protective equipment (PPE) that is necessary in the fight against the pandemic is piling up in landfills and polluting oceans.


While many other industries have been on the decline during the pandemic, manufacturers of plastic have seen their demand and production increase (1). Everyday, an estimated 1.6 million tonnes of plastic are generated (2). Globally, almost 130 billion face masks are disposed of monthly, making the rate of usage over 3 million masks per minute (3). Furthermore, plastic pollution doesn’t just come from biomedical wastes, common conveniences like delivery cartons and plastic bags also contribute greatly to the rise in consumption. Many cities, like California, postponed mandates for using reusable bags out of precaution that they would more easily transmit the virus. In part, the growth of plastic usage has been due to public perception of its ability to resist COVID-19 transmission. However, public perceptions are often misinformed, as leaders of the plastic industry misuse research to induce fear about using reusable alternatives or promises of recycling. In fact, companies are aware that recycling will likely not address the problem of plastics, however, they continue to push out campaigns highlighting the efficacy of recycling in order to give consumers the illusion that they are more environmentally friendly. Despite promises of large sums of money being allocated to plastic recycling and resusage, many plastic wastes that do not have established or cheap recycling methods ended up in landfills. With less than 10% of plastic actually being recycled, everyday items like PVC containers and food-stained packaging only continue to pollute the environment (1).


The plastic problem has actually been worsened due to the pandemic. Because of the unexpected nature of the pandemic, the sudden surge in single-use plastics that pile up in landfills and litter seabeds is on track to reverse the global momentum to reduce pollution (2). Masks have decorated the faces of people across the world, but now studies are showing that they are also invading beaches and oceans. In 2020 alone, over 1.5 billion face masks polluted the oceans, causing plastics to harmfully affect marine health and also our own (4). What’s more concerning is that the sudden surge in PPE waste may pose a threat since companies were not prepared to properly manage them (5). The production of masks rivals that of plastic bottles, but with one major difference – there are no guidelines for recycling masks. Because of the lack of regulations after their sudden boom in usage, researchers are concerned about the environmental impacts that they have. Single-use masks are made of plastics that are not readily biodegradable and can splinter into microplastics which negatively affect the health of ecosystems. The fibers that form face masks may make them prone to releasing more microplastics in a short period of time compared to plastic bags (3). Moreover, the toxins created by plastic face masks extend beyond microplastics, as researchers found that the dyes used in face mask production contain traces of potentially toxic heavy metals. Especially with face masks being submerged under water, the heavy metals can easily accumulate in aquatic systems (4). With plastics entering oceans and other natural environments, plastics have also made their way into the food chain. As animals ingest microplastics, the process of trophic transfer causes plastic-produced toxins to accumulate, ultimately ending up in our plates (6).


Plastics are undoubtedly harmful for the environment, especially in regards to ocean and wildlife health. However, plastic also plays a gargantuan role throughout society, both for protection against the pandemic and also daily conveniences. For example, the packaging of food often seems wasteful but is a luxury that is often overlooked in America. Without cheap plastics, food security in underdeveloped countries continues to be a big issue and actually generates more food waste due to improper packaging. There is also a balance that must be struck between plastic and plastic alternatives. Plastic is cheap and easy to produce, not generating as much greenhouse gases and water inputs compared to cotton or recycled bags. However, plastic bags are typically single-use items and, because of their non-reactiveness, take years to degrade in a natural environment (5). Thus, the question becomes, how can we properly manage personal and industrial plastic waste while also being mindful of societal limitations?


Considering the benefits of wearing a mask and other PPE, banning masks themselves may not be an effective solution. Instead, new materials and waste management standardization should be enacted to ensure that face masks no longer pose as great an environmental threat (7). Thus, just as with any majorly produced waste, new, pandemic-relevant recycling and management standards must be implemented across the country (3). Additionally, as governments hope to recover economies, there is hope to rebuild businesses and industries that can produce reusable PPEs or those made of alternative materials (2). From mask-only waste bins to mask alternatives that are biodegradable or reusable, steps must be taken to reduce the environmental impact of the pandemic (3).


While big industries should play a role in reducing plastic usage, the everyday person and the internet can play a big part in making sustainability a continuous trend, especially with the world going virtual. In the past years, sales of reusable cups and bottles have skyrocketed, showing that people are becoming more environmentally-focused [8]. This large rise in environmental consumers stems greatly from young environmental advocates and growing trends online of choosing sustainable alternatives like buying second hand and supporting local or sustainably-certified businesses [9]. Moreover, social media has become a great platform for researching easily-applicable ways to reduce one’s footprint and also marketing for environmentally-friendly brands [8]. With large companies and the common consumers consciously choosing to value the environment while still saying safe, we can all play a role in reducing the environmental cost of the pandemic.

Citations:
[1] D. Glaun, The plastic industry is growing during COVID. Recycling? Not so much. PBS, (2021).
[2] N. Benson, D. Bassey, and T. Palanisami., COVID pollution: Impact of COVID-19 pandemic on global plastic waste footprint. Heliyon 7, e06343 (2021). doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.heliyon.2021.e06343.
[3] E. Xu and Z. Ren, Preventing masks from becoming the next plastic problem. Frontiers of Environmental Science & Engineering 15, 125 (2021). doi: https://doi.org/10.1007/s11783-021-1413-7
[4] Z. Malin, How to reduce face mask pollution, according to experts. NBC News, (2021).
[5] H. Ritchie and M. Roser., Plastic pollution. Our World In Data, (2018).
[6] Plastic in food chain. Plastic Soup Foundation.
[7] Covid: Disposable masks pose pollutants risk, study finds. BBC, (2021).
[8] O. Valentine, Social media’s influence on green consumerism. We Are Social, (2019).
[9] S. Nielsen, Retailers and the rising trend of sustainability: What marketers need to know. Sprout Social, (2020).

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