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.


With the weather warming up in the Northern Hemisphere, many people are now making time for spring cleaning. While often we associate home cleaning supplies with synthetic scrubbers and harsh ingredients packed in plastic packaging, it’s far healthier to clean without the plastic and toxic chemicals.

 Conventional cleaning supplies contain toxic chemicals like ammonia, bleach, phthalates, triclosan, and more, in addition to the thousands of chemicals present in plastics. Some cleaning products also contain or shed plastic particles that pollute the environment and our bodies. Chemicals and plastics found in common cleaning supplies—including some synthetic products labeled “green”—have been connected to a number of serious health issues, including cancer, heart disease, hormone disruption, and respiratory illnesses.

You can avoid harmful chemicals and plastics by incorporating nontoxic and zero-waste principles into your cleaning routine. Luckily, it’s quite easy to do so, with many healthier, plastic-free cleaning options highly accessible, DIY-friendly, and available at an even lower cost than most conventional options.

What to Look For: Nontoxic, Plastic-Free Cleaning Supplies


When you’re looking for healthier cleaning supplies with just one or two ingredients to make yourself, the first step is to think simply. Look for tried-and-tested cleaning ingredients that do not expose you to toxic chemicals and plastics. These include:  

  • Baking soda, in cardboard — a great all-around cleaner, especially in the kitchen and bathroom
  • Castile soap, in paper or glass — excellent nontoxic soap
  • Citrus peels (lemon or orange) — work well when added to vinegar as a cleaning solution
  • Coffee grounds — useful for abrasive needs, such as scrubbing pans
  • Cornstarch, in cardboard — a great glass cleaner 
  • Essential oils, in glass — adds scent and cleaning properties to vinegar and water solutions
  • Olive oil, in glass — works for stain removal in fabrics
  • Salt, in glass or paper — useful abrasive for tile cleaning 
  • Soap nuts, in paper, glass, or canvas — for washing clothes or dishes without detergents
  • Vinegar (apple cider or white), in glass — a super all-around cleaner, dilute 1:1 with water
  • Vodka, in glass — good for disinfecting and cleaning glass
  • Washing soda, in cardboard — use instead of laundry detergent

Some of these cleaning items can be used on their own or by scrubbing with a little water, like baking soda, while others may be combined, such as vinegar and citrus peels, to maximize cleansing properties. With many of these cleaning items also commonly found in the kitchen, chances are, you have at least some already in your home. If not, you can find many of these items in grocery stores or at your local food pantry. Whenever possible, avoid purchasing cleaning supplies in plastic containers and packaging, and instead try to buy in bulk. 

Find more tips on choosing plastic-free and nontoxic cleaning supplies in our Plastic Pollution Coalition Guides. And find inspiration to kickstart your plastic-free choices, as well as DIY recipes, with the book I Quit Plastics by Plastic Pollution Coalition Notable Member Kate Nelson.

How to Store and Use Cleaning Supplies

There are many plastic-free ways to store and use your cleaning supplies. Reuse glass jam or pickle jars to hold dry or wet items until they are ready to use. For dry items, add a metal or wooden scoop. Glass-and-metal sprayers are a sturdier alternative to the plastic type and useful for spritzing the cleaning liquids on surfaces. Store coffee grounds and citrus rinds in the fridge until you’re ready to use them.

When you’re ready to clean, hop online to learn about the many ways you can use the simple ingredients above to keep your home clean. When you’re ready to dive into your spring cleaning, equip yourself with any mix of the following items:

  • Bamboo and natural bristle toothbrushes for hard-to-scrub areas of your home
  • Coconut fiber, cellulose, and sea sponges
  • Cotton rags, made from old towels or t-shirts
  • Glass-and-metal sprayer
  • Metal bucket
  • Metal dustpan
  • Wooden and natural bristle broom
  • Wooden and natural bristle scrubbers 
  • Wooden string mop

Some of these items can be found in secondhand stores for a reduced price compared to buying them new. 

Ready-made Options

If DIY is not your thing and you’d rather purchase ready-made healthier cleaning products, Plastic Pollution Coalition Business Members offer some excellent options.


Blueland strives to minimize waste and make cleaning products that are better for people and the planet. Simply fill the provided refillable spray and pump dispensers with water, drop in Blueland tablets, and start cleaning. And if doing the dishes or laundry, Blueland makes plastic-free washing tablets to pop in your dishwasher and washing machine.


EarthHero provides a wide selection of environmentally friendly products sourced from ethical and eco-friendly businesses, making it a one-stop shop for sustainable living—and cleaning. EarthHero offers all manner of cleaning supplies and equipment suitable for every room of your home.

I’m Plastic Free

I’m Plastic Free is a matchmaking platform you can use to find laundry and household cleaning products without all the plastic. Use I’m Plastic Free’s resources to learn how to swap conventional cleaning products for healthier plastic-free choices.

Life Without Plastic

Life Without Plastic offers reusable, nontoxic alternatives to everyday items that are so often made of plastic. In the cleaning category, you can find a selection of glass and bamboo storage jars, glass and metal soap dispensers, bamboo scrubbers, and more.

Meliora Cleaning Products

Meliora Cleaning Products is committed to offering eco-friendly laundry powder and other healthy cleaning products for homes, without any plastic. The company uses safe, non-toxic ingredients and packages their products in plastic-free reusable, recyclable, and compostable materials.


PlanetCare makes laundry machine filters designed to trap microplastics that shed from synthetic fabrics when they are being washed, keeping them out of water treatment systems. Unless your wardrobe and bedding are plastic-free and made completely from natural fibers, unfortunately, your washing machine is still creating microplastics with every wash. With each wash, a single fleece jacket is estimated to shed at least 250,000 individual synthetic plastic fibers into wash water, which is either discharged directly into your home septic system or into a sewer. Choosing clothing made of natural fibers like bamboo, hemp, organic cotton, or linen will best prevent the release of microplastics when washing laundry.

Refill and Zero-Waste Shops

Refill and zero-waste shops are another excellent place to find healthier, plastic-free cleaning supplies. And chances are, there’s at least one such shop near you! PPC Member Ecorate keeps a database of shops offering bulk refills of personal care and cleaning supplies with the aim of assisting users in reducing waste. PPC Member Plastic Free Future also maintains a platform listing a wide selection of zero-waste and refill shops.

Beware of False “Greenwashed” Solutions

As with most categories of stuff, if you look closely at the available selection of cleaning products available today, you’ll find greenwashed options among real solutions. If you’re looking to purchase cleaning products, check the ingredients lists to avoid plastics and toxic chemicals. This means avoiding microplastics, PEG (polyethylene glycol), phthalates, and PVA or PVOH (polyvinyl alcohol), as well as ammonia, chlorine and chlorinated chemicals, phenols, phosphates, SEA, SLS, SLES, TEA, triclosan and triclocarban. 

While polyvinyl alcohol (PVA) is frequently praised as a “degradable” plastic, in reality it does not live up to its eco-friendly reputation. PVA poses a number of environmental and health risks that call into question its status as an ecological solution, despite its claimed degradability.

Take Action

Choosing healthier, plastic-free cleaning products is a great way to further eliminate toxic plastic and chemicals from your life. You can also help by supporting real solutions in your community—and on an even larger scale. 

Support policy actions, like the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act in the U.S., and a strong global UN Plastics Treaty, to create the systemic change necessary to seriously reduce plastic pollution at the source. Sign the petitions below.

May 17 , 3:00 pm 4:00 pm EDT

“Climate change is not a tragedy, it’s a crime.” Could this increasingly common refrain among climate activists be more than just a slogan?

Years of reporting show that fossil fuel companies knew of their contributions to climate change and funded multimillion-dollar disinformation campaigns to block responses that would curb their dangerous conduct — conduct that is today causing massive harms and deaths across the country.

Could these acts constitute homicide or other criminal violations? Should Big Oil be prosecuted? Join legal experts, scientists, and former prosecutors for a panel discussion on this new theory of climate accountability, hosted by Public Citizen, Union of Concerned Scientists, and Fair and Just Prosecution, and moderated by Bill McKibben

June 10 , 9:30 am June 11 , 5:30 pm EDT

The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) is partnering with the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) to hold a 2-day workshop to stimulate discussion about and interest in researching ways to reduce and mitigate the effects of endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) in people who have been exposed. “Complementary and Integrative Interventions To Prevent and Mitigate the Effects of Endocrine-Disrupting Chemicals” will take place June 10–11, 2024. Spanish-language interpretation will be provided for those who indicate the need. 

Register now to join virtually.

  • Members of the public may join by livestream and ask questions in advance of the meeting. 

July 2 , 1:00 pm 2:00 pm EDT

One in six children in the U.S. has a developmental disability and the prevalence of those disabilities has increased over the past decade. Families with low incomes and families of color have long faced disproportionate exposures to toxic chemicals and pollutants known to hinder brain development. These inequities stem from histories of discriminatory policies. 

A recently published literature review, initiated by Project TENDR (Targeting Environmental Neuro-Development Risks), sheds light on the disparities in neurodevelopmental outcomes in children in low-income families and communities of color in the United States. The scoping review, which analyzes more than 200 studies conducted between 1974 and 2022, maps existing literature on seven neurotoxicants, including combustion-related air pollution, lead, mercury, pesticides, phthalates, PBDEs, and PCBs. 

“As a result of discriminatory practices and policies, families with low incomes and families of color are currently and historically disproportionately exposed to chemicals without their knowledge or consent where they live, work, play, pray, and learn,” says co-lead author Dr. Devon Payne-Sturges.

As part of the review process, Project TENDR Health Disparities Workgroup members met with community and environmental justice leaders to identify possible areas of collaboration and opportunities for the research to support the work of the environmental justice organizations.

The review underscores the need for action at all levels of government to limit, lower, and eliminate existing pollutants and toxic chemicals in our environments in order to achieve environmental justice and health equity. It calls for stronger workplace protections and an end to siting chemical and plastics manufacturing facilities in/near communities of color and low-income communities.

In this 1.5 hour discussion hosted by CHE Alaska, Dr. Payne-Sturges and Dr. Tanya Khemet Taiwo, the lead authors of the report, will present their findings and recommendations. Dr. Kristie Ellickson will demonstrate a searchable database of studies on disparities in exposures and impacts. ACAT’s Environmental Health and Justice Director Vi Waghiyi will talk about neurodevelopmental disparities and health inequities specifically in Alaska Native children.