analysis | How covid made the world’s garbage problem even worse

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In 2020, when coronavirus lockdowns emptied public spaces and birdsong replaced drones in cars and planes, some saw an opportunity to embrace a slower and more thoughtful way of life and prioritize the health of the planet over limitless consumption. It didn’t turn out that way. The surge in e-commerce and online meal delivery means humanity is throwing up garbage like never before. And the avalanche of discarded face masks, gloves, syringes and test kits that saved countless lives left a devastating legacy on the natural world.

1. How much waste did the pandemic generate?

According to a paper in Nature, more than 530 million tonnes of plastic waste was generated in the first seven months of the COVID-19 outbreak, suggesting that the total in 2020 will more than double what it was in 2019. During Singapore’s lockdown from April to May 2020, Singapore’s takeaway and home delivery services alone left an additional 1.21 million tonnes of plastic.

2. Where did it all end?

Many did not reach the garbage disposal facility and eventually decomposed into smaller particles that either messed up the landscape or entered land, rivers and oceans. U.S. utilities have complained of masks and other virus-related waste flowing into toilets, clogging pipes and clogging sewage treatment facilities. An estimated 1.56 billion face masks may have entered the oceans in 2020, according to that year’s study by campaign group OceansAsia. Environmental protection groups have documented a surge in the amount of masks, wipes and gloves piling up on beaches from Hong Kong to California. The Marine Mammal Center, which rescues and rehabilitates whales, dolphins and seals, has found animals that are entangled in the material and then drowned or swallowed.

3. Why is the medical industry obsessed with plastics?

Inexpensive, abundant, moldable into all kinds of shapes and textures, and a very effective barrier against viruses and bacteria, making it ideal for personal protective equipment or PPE. Unlike glass or ceramics, it is flexible and very light, and will not rot or corrode like wood or metal.

4. Can’t we just recycle it?

Plastics that filter out virus particles are not considered safe to be used more than once or to be touched later without protection. Other PPEs that can normally be recycled are eventually misclassified as hazardous. Many products are composites of various plastics and cannot be recycled. The most common disposable masks are a three-layer construction of soft cellulose, “meltblown” polypropylene and polyester plus a metal nose strip. Reuse requires separation of each of these layers and metals, which most waste facilities cannot do. So they are usually collected, packaged and sent to landfill or burned. Eventually, they release particles ending in “plastic rain” or “plastic smog” into the atmosphere, where they can enter food, drinking water, and the air you breathe.

5. How much general waste is recycled?

It depends on where you are. More than half of German waste is reused. In the United States, about a third was recycled or composted in 2018. In 2016, New York City cost $18 more per ton to collect and dispose of recyclable materials than to dispose of general waste. Since then, recycling costs have skyrocketed, in part because China stopped buying waste from other countries in 2017. The market for relatively hard plastics in laundry detergent bottles and water bottles is still a healthy market. However, most of the rest are difficult to recycle because they contain mixed materials that must be separated using special machines. Improper recycling also increases costs. For example, just one pizza box in a cardboard recycling pile can ruin the entire batch. This is because the oil in it cannot be separated from the paper fibers.

Due to the pandemic, more and more people are using recycling platforms like Freecycle Network. Currently, about 1,000 tonnes of items are changing hands every day. Roughly the amount of waste going to a medium-sized landfill. Entrepreneurs from France to India are experimenting with turning plastic waste into building bricks, school chairs, 3D printer filament and yarn for clothing. Some are transforming face masks into new products like visors by mixing new types of plastics. There are experiments with plastics that are biodegradable or contain natural ingredients. Another alternative is to make more packaging products from more easily reusable materials such as glass or metal. None of these proposed solutions come close to reversing the growing waste problem. Greenpeace estimates that online shopping in China generated 9.4 million tonnes of packaging in 2018 and will increase to 41 million tonnes by 2025.

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