Oceans polluted with more than 8 million tons of COVID-19 garbage: Study

Jun 7 2022, 11:35 pm

By this point, we all know that COVID-19 has wreaked havoc on schools, businesses, and the medical system, not to mention our mental health, but many people haven’t stopped to think about the environmental impacts of the coronavirus pandemic. Of particular concern to scientists and climate activists around the globe is the amount of plastic COVID-19 waste that is harming oceans and marine wildlife.

A study published in PNAS in November 2021 estimated that since the start of the pandemic, 193 countries had generated around 8.4 million tons of pandemic-associated garbage, such as face masks and gloves. Approximately 25,9000 tons of that plastic COVID-19 waste eventually made its way into the ocean.

The study indicated that 87.4% of the excess mismanaged plastic waste came from hospitals, versus 7.6% from individuals’ PPE use. Another 4.7% came from the packaging used to ship online purchases, and 0.3% from test kits.

“To sustain the enormous demand for personal protective equipment (PPE, including face masks, gloves, and face shields), many single-use plastic (SUP) legislations have been withdrawn or postponed. In addition, lockdowns, social distancing, and restrictions on public gathering increase the dependency on online shopping at an unprecedented speed, the packaging material of which often contains plastics,” the authors of the study wrote.

“Unfortunately, the treatment of plastic waste is not keeping up with the increased demand for plastic products. Pandemic epicenters in particular struggle to process the waste, and not all the used PPEs and packaging materials are handled or recycled. This mismanaged plastic waste (MMPW) is then discharged into the environment, and a portion reaches the ocean. The released plastics can be transported over long distances in the ocean, encounter marine wildlife, and potentially lead to injury or even death.”

In March 2021, a study published in Brill looked at how wildlife is ingesting disposable PPE, getting trapped or entangled in it, and using it as nesting material. The study noted the first case of a fish found trapped in a medical glove, in The Netherlands.

In Brazil in September 2020, a penguin was discovered with a mask in its stomach, and this plastic COVID-19 waste was deemed the cause of death. It is believed to be the first time during the pandemic that a marine animal died from ingesting a face mask.

The PNAS study cited earlier summed up what needs to be done regarding plastic COVID-19 waste: “Innovative technologies need to be promoted for better plastic waste collection, classification, treatment, and recycling, as well as the development of more environmentally friendly materials. Better management of medical waste in epicenters, especially in developing countries, is necessary.”

Ironically, the very PPE that is designed to keep humans safe and healthy during the COVID-19 pandemic is proving destructive to marine animals, the ocean, and, ultimately, the environment in which we all live.

Sheri RadfordSheri Radford

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