Four Years In: Assessing the COVID-19 Pandemic’s Plastic Pollution

Four years in, we’re assessing the COVID-19 pandemic’s plastic pollution: Since COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic, it has upended our daily routines; disrupted the economy; sadly, cost many people their lives; and generated significant amounts of plastic everywhere.

This summer, health experts are concerned by a new set of COVID-19 variants, nicknamed “FLiRT,” adding to the more than 50 other types of variants we’ve seen since the pandemic was first declared in March 2020. In addition to food and supply shortages, job layoffs, social isolation, and other major challenges, an additional problem—the widespread use of single-use plastic—has grown worse. The demand for personal protective equipment (PPE) and people opting to shop online from home instead of in stores caused a spike in single-use plastic pollution, especially early on in the pandemic. A rise in plastic pollution became an unexpected consequence of the global effort to contain the virus, but has also raised concerns about environmental degradation and the impacts of plastic pollution on human health.

A Single-Use Plastic Surge

In addition to lockdowns and other social distancing measures, personal protective equipment (PPE) requirements for many institutions—such as medical facilities, schools, stores, and workplaces—increased usage of single-use plastics, worsening an already serious problem. As demand for PPE increased, the market was quickly flooded with plastic face shields, gloves, masks, and bottles of hand sanitizer. 

All plastics contain any mixture of more than 16,000 chemicals, at least 4,200 of which are already known to be hazardous to human health and the environment. Plastics also shed microplastic and nanoplastic particles. Plastics most commonly used to make PPE include low-density polyethylene (LDPE), polyurethane (PU), polycarbonate (PC), polypropylene (PP), and polyvinyl chloride (PVC), which is known to be particularly toxic.

When worn as PPE, plastic chemicals and particles have a direct route into the body through the eyes, mouth, and skin. Many of the chemicals in plastics are linked to hormone disruption, which can increase the risk of autoimmune diseases, cancers, fertility and reproductive issues, metabolic problems, and other serious health problems. Plastic particles in the body have been linked to neurodegenerative conditions like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, increased risk of heart attack, stroke, and death, and more.

Pandemic restrictions also increased the demand for takeout dining and online shopping, further driving usage of single-use plastic bags, packaging, and foodware. For example, during the first year of the pandemic, researchers in the Republic of Korea determined that online orders for food went up by 92.5% and for daily necessities by 44.5% in that country alone. Unfortunately, businesses overwhelmingly opted for single-use plastic options over other reusable choices—a boon for the plastics industry, but a bane for human health and the environment.

While production of plastic for some purposes, such as vehicle manufacturing, decreased due to pandemic shutdowns, production of single-use plastics surged. So did pollution: Just a year into the pandemic, researchers determined that at least 8.4 million tons of pandemic-associated plastic pollution had entered the environment, much of it generated as medical waste from hospitals. At least 25,000 tons of this plastic pollution is expected to have directly polluted the ocean. This is on top of the already huge and growing amount of plastic pollution harming the planet every day, much of it already coming from single-use items.

Pandemic Plastic Policy Challenges

Some governments struggled to strike a balance between regulating plastics and reacting quickly to a public health emergency in the immediate onset of the pandemic. Citing sanitary concerns, the governments of India, Italy, Portugal, Senegal, several U.S. States, and Australia modified or delayed taxes and bans on single-use plastics, and Scotland and the Netherlands delayed implementing deposit-return programs. Some places paused existing plastic bag fees or bans, and eased restrictions on specific disposable plastic items. 

Early in the pandemic, experts predicted that these steps backward on plastic policy would ultimately hinder long-term progress to address plastic pollution—and this is precisely what happened. Single-use plastic production has surged in the absence of restrictive measures on its production. Meanwhile, pandemic challenges requiring the waste management industry to enforce social distancing generally reduced capacity for the collection of plastic pollution and other discarded wastes. This led to a rise in illegal dumping in some places, such as Australia, Belgium, Ireland, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom, putting additional strain on the environment and human communities. 

Protect Your Health With Less—Not More—Plastic

With COVID-19 and several other serious illnesses now circulating among the global population, we still need to protect ourselves. But most people can still do so without PPE made of plastic, which we know harms human health. According to health experts, it is safe for the general public to opt for reusable cotton or linen masks, which should be washed after daily use. (This also saves money compared to buying hundreds of single-use masks.) Experts also stress that reusable systems are also safe to use by engaging in basic hygiene practices.

Similarly, experts say most of the general public does not need single-use plastic gloves. When it comes to keeping your hands clean, washing thoroughly with soap and water throughout the day and especially after going out and before eating is highly effective at keeping viruses at bay. If you must use sanitizer, you can cut down on single-use plastic by buying in bulk and refilling the same smaller on-the-go container over and over rather than continuously buying new ones.

In some cases, such as life-saving situations, there are some plastic items that are (for now) less easily replaced with plastic-free materials due to the profusion of plastics produced for medical purposes. However, in many other healthcare situations, single-use plastic items have far healthier replacements that are accessible and affordable. For example, Healthcare Without Harm recommends that hospitals replace single-use plastic gowns with reusable cotton gowns, and suggests packing food and beverages in reusable, plastic-free containers. Such simple swaps can significantly reduce the healthcare sectors’ use of plastic, which is far better for our health.

Take Action

We are living in a “new normal” where we are more aware of the tiny world of viruses, and the outsized impact they can have on our lives. At the same time, we have grown more aware of the dangers of plastic pollution, and how increasing production of plastic poisons people. Instead of further straining our health with toxic plastics, it’s important we make decisions that prioritize the health of people and the planet.

Help us encourage world leaders to support a strong UN Plastics Treaty that recognizes and acts upon the need to significantly curb plastic production, and supports real solutions.


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