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November 10, 2021

How did 25,000 tons of Covid-related plastic waste end up in the ocean?

Daily Briefing

    More than 25,000 tons of Covid-related plastic waste have polluted the world's oceans—and it largely consists of hospital waste, such as masks, gloves, and face shields, according to a new study published in PNAS.

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    Study details

    According to researchers from Nanjing University's School of Atmospheric Sciences and the University of California, San Diego Scripps Institution of Oceanography, the Covid-19 pandemic increased demand for single-use plastics, which in turn "intensifies pressure on an already out-of-control global plastic waste problem." They added, "While it is suspected to be large, the magnitude and fate of this pandemic-associated mismanaged plastic waste are unknown."

    To better examine the issue, the researchers created a model to estimate how much pandemic-related plastic waste has been generated and where it will end up.

    According to Yanxu Zhang, one of the study's authors and a professor at the School of Atmospheric Sciences, the model serves as a "virtual reality" that "simulates how the seawater moves driven by wind and how the plastics float on the surface ocean, degraded by sunlight, fouled by plankton, landed on beaches, and sunk to the deep." He explained, "It can be used to answer 'what if' questions, for example, what will happen if we add a certain amount of plastics to the ocean?"

    The model used data from the beginning of the pandemic in 2020 through August 2021.

    Key findings

    Overall, the researchers found that 8 million tons of pandemic-related plastic waste have been generated worldwide. A large majority of this plastic waste came from Asia, and most of it consists of medical waste from hospitals. Of the total waste generated, more than 25,000 tons of discarded masks, gloves, and face shields have entered the world's oceans.

    According to the researchers, most of the plastic waste generated from the pandemic will likely end up on beaches and in the seabed within the next three or four years, with a smaller portion entering the open ocean. Specifically, the model projects that by the end of this century, "almost all the pandemic-associated plastics [will] end up in either the seabed (28.8%) or beaches (70.5%)."

    The plastic waste is likely to have negative long-term effects on the environment and wildlife. "The released plastics can be transported over long distances in the ocean, encounter marine wildlife, and potentially lead to injury or even death," the researchers wrote. "The plastic debris could also facilitate species invasion and transport of contaminants, including the Covid-19 virus," they added.

    According to Axios, there have already been reports of pandemic-related waste affecting marine wildlife, including fish trapped in medical gloves and a protective mask being found inside a penguin's stomach.


    "When we started doing the math, we were surprised to find that the amount of medical waste was substantially larger than the amount of waste from individuals, and a lot of it was coming from Asian countries, even though that's not where most of the Covid-19 cases were," said Amina Schartup, an assistant professor at Scripps Oceanography and one of the study's authors.

    Schartup added, "The biggest sources of excess waste were hospitals in areas already struggling with waste management before the pandemic; they just weren't set up to handle a situation where you have more waste." According to the authors, the study's findings suggest a need for "better waste management in pandemic epicenters, especially in developing countries." They called for increased global public awareness of how plastic products, including personal protective equipment, impact the environment. They also suggested that new technologies be developed to better collect, classify, treat, and recycle plastic waste.

    "Indeed, the Covid-related plastic is only a portion of a bigger problem we face in the 21st century: plastic waste," said Zhang. "To solve it requires a lot of technical renovation, transition of economy, and change of lifestyle." (Murez, U.S. News & World Report, 11/9; Chen, Axios, 11/8; Beals, The Hill, 11/8; Peng et al., PNAS, 11/8)

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