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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As the global pandemic continues, restaurants and small businesses in California are struggling to make ends meet, but businesses, environmental organizations, and individuals are coming together to support a common sense initiative that reduces single-use plastic and saves restaurants money.

Join Plastic Pollution Coalition, Habits of Waste, and the Center for Oceanic Awareness, Research, and Education, and 35 organizations in asking Governor Gavin Newsom to sign an emergency executive order to make foodware accessories upon request. This means restaurants, caterers, and food delivery systems within the State of California would #SkipTheStuff and refrain from including single-use dishware, utensils, napkins, condiments, straws, or other foodware accessories when preparing or packaging food to-go or for delivery. Add your name now.

Food delivery apps Uber Eats and Postmates have already switched their default setting to make plastic cutlery an “OPT-IN” feature, available only upon request. Postmates released data that since joining the #CutOutCutlery campaign in October 2019, they saved 122 million packs of plastic cutlery from entering the waste stream. This equates to $3.2 million dollars in savings for restaurants.

“With a stroke of a pen Governor Newsom could enact an Emergency Executive Order for the State of California, saving restaurants money and making them more resilient while keeping needless plastic waste from overflowing our junk drawers and landfills and from entering our environment, waterways, and ocean,” said Jackie Nuñez, Program Manager at Plastic Pollution Coalition and founder of The Last Plastic Straw.

“If successful, our hope is that a temporary order will not only provide stopgap relief while we await a permanent legislative solution, but it will also provide meaningful metrics in support of the case for such legislation,” said Christopher Chin, Executive Director at COARE. “Similar to offering water only upon request in a drought situation, we need to stop forcing unnecessary and unwanted plastic upon consumers when we’re overwhelmed with waste. What makes this case even more important is that it equates to an unnecessary expense for already struggling businesses.”

The advocates maintain that if California leads this charge, the remaining food delivery applications that have not yet changed their default setting will be obliged to make the change nationwide and globally.

Join our global Coalition.

Washington, DC – Greenpeace USA released a report today highlighting various reuse and refill models around the globe that have continued or can be used during the COVID-19 pandemic by ensuring strong sanitization or contactless systems for containers. The report, Reusables Are Doable, assures restaurants, retailers, and consumer goods companies that a pandemic does not need to mean shifting toward widespread disposable plastic that threatens the environment and the health of communities worldwide. 

“Reusable systems are not only possible during a global pandemic, they are needed more than ever,” said Greenpeace USA Plastics Campaigner David Pinsky. “Communities of color on the frontlines of the plastic pollution crisis face increased risks from COVID-19, but the plastics industry continues to churn out dangerous throwaway products and claim they are safe. It is time for restaurants, retailers, and large brands to end their reliance on useless plastic packaging, bags, and containers once and for all.” 

Greenpeace’s report features a number of reusable systems globally that can instill confidence during the pandemic. Those systems include: 

  • Contactless coffee systems have been embraced by hundreds of cafes worldwide to minimize waste. With this system, a customer places their reusable container on the counter, backs away, and allows the barista to fill it with a separate cup that doesn’t touch the customer’s. 
  • Loop, which launched in 2019, offering well-known grocery brands to customers in reusable containers. The company collects used containers, sanitizes them according to FDA standards, and uses them for future products. Loop has reported a sales increase during COVID-19.
  • The Wally Shop, which recently expanded to nationwide operations, also offers grocery delivery with reusable containers.
  • To-go reusable models, such as CupClub, which enable customers to borrow a reusable cup, use it, then return it at a dropoff point to be cleaned. 
  • Takeout meal systems, such as Dispatch Goods, partner with local restaurants to provide meals in reusable containers that customers return for commercial cleaning.
  • Algramo, based in Chile, which uses vending machines and an electric vehicle delivery service that allows people to pay for only the amount of product they need in reusable containers. 

The report urges governments and businesses to move away from single-use plastics, as plastic production continues to fuel the climate crisis and harm low-income and Black and Brown communities already disproportionately suffering from COVID-19. Greenpeace notes that reusable systems can protect workers, customers, and our environment by meeting basic hygiene and distancing requirements. New and expanded reusable systems can also help to get people back to work after the pandemic in strong, union jobs that also protect our planet.

Early in the pandemic, the plastic industry and its surrogates worked to exploit fears around COVID-19 to demonize reusables and expand disposable plastics. Since then, 130 health experts have weighed in to detail how reusables can be used safely during a pandemic. There are no documented cases of COVID-19 from surface contact. 

Greenpeace does not endorse any of the companies or products mentioned in the report. The examples included are solely to illustrate the types of systems that can instill confidence. 

Read the Greenpeace USA report.

Join our global Coalition.

by Greenpeace International

The health experts  — joined by Greenpeace USA and UPSTREAM, both members of the Break Free From Plastic movement — emphasize that disposable products are not inherently safer than reusables and that reusable systems can be utilized safely during the pandemic by employing basic hygiene.

“Public health must include maintaining the cleanliness of our home, the Earth,” said Dr. Mark Miller, former director of research at the National Institutes of Health’s Fogarty International Center. “The promotion of unnecessary single-use plastics to decrease exposure to the coronavirus negatively impacts the environment, water systems, and potential food supply compared to the safe use of reusable bags, containers, and utensils.”

The statement endorsed by scientists, academics, doctors, and specialists in public health and food packaging safety around the world, notes that household disinfectants have been proven effective at disinfecting hard surfaces, such as reusables. The statement follows several temporary pauses on plastic bans across the world and increased bans on reusables by shops amid COVID-19.

“It’s been shocking to witness the plastic industry take advantage of the pandemic to promote throwaway plastics and scare people away from reusable bags and other items,” said Greenpeace USA Global Project Leader Graham Forbes. “It is crucial for businesses, and governments to know that as they reopen, reusable systems can be deployed safely to protect both our environment and workers and customers. To keep people safe and protect our planet, we should listen to the best available science instead of underhanded marketing from the plastic industry.” 

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the plastic industry has worked to boost profits and demonize reusables. Pauses on plastic bans followed a significant PR push from the plastics industry, using older industry-funded research to claim that reusables are more dangerous than disposables during COVID-19. 

“Over the past few months, there’s been a lot of conflicting information about how the virus is spread, but we now know that surfaces are not the main way we’re exposed,” said Matt Prindiville, CEO of UPSTREAM – a nonprofit sparking innovative solutions to plastic pollution. “Plastic harms our health along the entire supply chain. Fortunately, COVID is easily destroyed by proper washing, so restaurants, grocery stores and other businesses can still serve us using reusable items in ways that protect health without harming the environment.” 

The full statement signed by health experts can be found here.

Photo: A refinery in Houston, Texas. Still photo from ‘The Story of Plastic’ film.

As countries and communities race to address the massive health and economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, oil, gas, and petrochemical producers are lobbying aggressively to secure government bailouts and regulatory rollbacks from governments around the world. A new report  by the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL) warns that meeting the industry’s demands would waste vital and limited resources on a failing sector.

Pandemic Crisis, Systemic Decline: Why Exploiting the COVID-19 Crisis Will Not Save the Oil, Gas, and Plastic Industries exposes the array of interacting forces that have put the oil, gas, and plastic industries under sustained financial stress over the last decade and examines how the COVID-19 pandemic is exacerbating those weaknesses.

The report weaves together the seemingly disparate threats converting these interwoven industries — from the oil price war, to the failure of fracking to turn a profit, to single-use plastic bans — to show that they are all part of one story: the oil, gas, and plastic industry in long-term decline.

“Oil, gas, and plastic were facing profound and pervasive risks even before COVID-19 emerged. And every day, their future prospects look worse,” says CIEL President Carroll Muffett. “The pandemic has triggered a cascade of events that is accelerating the sector’s ongoing decline.”

The report examines how COVID-19 and resulting economy-wide shutdowns have collapsed demand for oil, gas, and key petrochemicals, including by shutting down the transport industries that are the lifeblood to petroleum sector revenues. It highlights the challenges that will make a return to pre-COVID-19 levels of consumption in these sectors slow, uncertain, and in some cases, unlikely. The impact of this massive supply glut on a global storage capacity that was already nearing its limits for both oil and gas is forcing companies and entire countries to cut production and freeze expansion plans. And the convergence of a market collapse with an industry facing more than $200 billion in corporate debt is pushing a growing number of companies into bankruptcy — or receivership.

“Shoveling money at the oil, gas, and petrochemical industries will not change the fundamental weaknesses they faced before this crisis began and will face moving forward,” says report co-author Steven Feit.  “These industries already faced an interlocking set of financial challenges, catalyzed by a financial sector growing increasingly skeptical of fossil fuels. Oil, gas, and petrochemical companies are already asking for bailouts, and governments should not be fooled into, at best, postponing their inevitable decline.”

Recognizing that COVID-19 is more likely to exacerbate than reverse the long-term trends confronting the sector, the report recommends that public officials, institutional investors, frontier countries, and local communities across the planet respond accordingly.

“The pandemic adds to mounting and now overwhelming evidence that this sector has reached its end game,” says Muffett.  “No amount of government intervention or taxpayer money can save these companies in the long term unless they fundamentally transform their business models. For governments to continue dumping money into these industries is throwing money down a hole at a time when every moment and every dollar needs to be used effectively for the greatest possible public good.”

Read the full report.