The number of single-use face masks that are daily discarded as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, globally (Source: Benson et al. 2021). This is equivalent to say that each day we dump into the environment 200.000 tons of non-recyclable waste (enough litter to fill 135 Olympic-size swimming pools). Are our current waste management measures sufficient to cope with the increasing COVID waste? What can we do to mitigate negative environmental consequences?
Few months after the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, the world witnessed the first outcomes of the lockdown measures -intended to curb the spread of COVID-19. China’s air pollution levels plummeted at a rate and scale never observed before. However, the hope that fewer people traveling and less industrial activity would bring permanent benefits to the environment soon started to fade. Scientists discovered that what seemed to be a great improvement at first, ended up being insignificant to counteract years of accumulated pollution and CO2 in the atmosphere. Even more striking than the almost imperceptible effect on contamination levels, was the realization that environmental pollution exacerbated in other areas.
COVID pandemic, COVID waste
At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the World Health Organization requested a 40% escalation of disposable personal protective equipment (PPE) production. The widespread use of single-use PPE -such as face masks, gloves, protective medical suits, etc.- has added great pressure on the environment. Waste management measures cannot cope with the increasing production and use of protective gear, which has resulted in greater pollution of lands, coastlines, and seabeds. The non-profit organization Opération mer propre informs that its divers are finding a growing amount of PPE floating in the waters of the French coast. It’s not unusual to find disposable masks littering the streets that at some point will end up in our oceans. In fact, 80% of plastic trash that enters our oceans primarily originates from land-based sources, with rivers being the major transport pathway.
Plastic is the predominant material used to produce not only PPE and also other types of COVID waste such as hand-sanitizer bottles, disposable wipes, and overall packaging to improve food safety. The increased packaging waste from deliveries and supermarkets is predominantly the result of the quarantine economy. Undoubtedly, COVID waste is worsening existing plastic pollution problems, created by over 10 million tonnes of plastic that have been estimated to threaten the health of the planet. Plastic, most of which does not decompose, is a significant driver of climate change. These pressing challenges are expected to increase as the pandemic drags on.
Companies, governments, and individuals now have an even more urgent responsibility to transition to a circular economy. Although responses have been slow, some governments are implementing measures to mitigate the consequences of COVID pollution. In June last year, France announced an increase in fines for PPE littering from 68 to 135 euros. Likewise, the E.U. proposed a levy on plastic waste to help fund national pandemic recovery efforts. The Spanish biotech company Bioquochem, partnered with the Ministry of Science to create an industrial model that allows them to sterilize and recycle 500,000 masks a day. In Australia, researchers found that recycled face masks can be used to build roads, by combining shredded single-use masks and processed building rubble.
At the individual level, a shift in consumption patterns poses a powerful contribution to COVID pollution problems. Some ideas are:
- Switching to a reusable mask. This is safe as long as it is from washable material. Reusable masks are eco-friendly and they’ll prevent people from unknowingly spreading the virus.
- Making sure that PPE waste is properly disposed of. Single-use face masks and disposable gloves should never be placed in a recycling bin as this would put recycling collection and depot workers at risk of infection.
- Switching to 100% biodegradables gloves.
- Supporting initiatives that are fighting environmental pollution.
On the NooS platform, you will find zero-waste projects that you, your community, and your company can support. The impactful initiatives divert litter from the natural environment (land, rivers, and oceans), upcycle the collected waste, and raise awareness about environmental pollution among different communities.
Unless immediate action is taken, plastic pollution will continue to seriously endanger life on the planet. The path to recovery will be difficult, but to achieve a more sustainable and inclusive world, we must turn environmental protection, communities’ livelihoods, and plastic action into a priority.