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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May 29 , 3:00 pm 4:00 pm EDT

Join GAIA, Ironbound Community Corporation, and Friends of the Earth for a webinar on zero waste and how it’s the answer to the question: What do we do with all our waste once we close an incinerator?

Despite being a major contributor to climate change, the incinerator industry stays afloat by relying on renewable energy credits, costly subsidies, and externalized costs. The Treasury Department is beginning to determine whether incineration should qualify as a “zero emissions” technology under the 45Y Clean Electricity Production Tax Credit. If they determine it falls under this category, this would open up billions of dollars in funding for the incinerator lobby through the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA).

This session will feature experts Marcel Howard, Zero Waste Program Manager – US/CAN at GAIA; Greg Sawtell, Zero Waste Just Transition Director at the South Baltimore Community Land Trust (SBCLT); Krystle D’Alencar, Environmental Justice Organizer, Minnesota Environmental Justice Table (MNEJT); and KT Morelli, Organizer at Breathe Free Detroit

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

DIY

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

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

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 

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.

June 4 , 11:00 am 12:00 pm EDT

Join Multisolving Institute for a one hour interactive webinar introducing multisolving and the Multisolving Way.

In this webinar, people will learn: what multisolving is, hear some examples of multisolving; interact with others whose work involves crossing silos; and learn about research at Multisolving Institute on the practices that we see used by effective multisolvers.

All are welcome and we especially encourage people working across silos in government, non-profits, business, and community-based organizations; those who are curious about the interconnections of climate change, health, equity, and biodiversity; and people interested in systems thinking.

May 23 , 7:00 am 8:00 am EDT

Join GAIA/BFFP Africa on May 23rd at 1pm Central African Time as we mark Africa Day by shining a spotlight on the urgent problem of textile waste across the continent. Our expert speakers will delve into this issue, and raise awareness on waste colonialism in Africa. Don’t miss out on this insightful webinar!