Plastic Pollution and Waste Management During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Plastic Pollution and Waste Management During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Hong Kong: On May 5 2020, the Hong Kong government announced that it would be distributing special reusable face masks to all residents – free of charge.

“This [CuMask] mask can filter viruses,” Edwin Keh, CEO of the Hong Kong Research Institute of Textiles and Apparel which developed the specific mask, said in an interview. “The mask’s copper elements can also suppress the virus.”

The CuMask which can be used for up to eight hours at a time, is reusable for up to 60 washes. At the moment, the Hong Kong government is also thinking of supplying mask filters, depending on how the COVID-19 pandemic progresses.

This is a commendable move as the pandemic has resulted in an increase in disposables, with most residents using disposable masks and gloves, wipes, and bottles of disinfectants and sanitizers to combat the virus.

Used disposable medical mask found on beach. Credit: Tatyana Aksenova.

Unfortunately, some of these can be haphazardly disposed along the streets and eventually find their way into our seas and nature. In fact, Gary Stokes, founder of the Asia-focused environmental group Oceans Asia, found a hundred masks washed ashore on the beaches of the remote and uninhabited part of Hong Kong, the Soko Islands.

“A recently published study showed that when plastic is left in the water long enough and algae and bacteria grow on it, it actually smells like food to turtles,” Stokes emphasised in an interview.

Most single-use masks are made of polypropylene plastic which is harmful to the environment. Sea creatures in Soko Islands can ingest them, mistaking them for food, and will eventually lead to their death. With COVID-19 opening the floodgates of disposables, we also have to contend not only with its health consequences, but it’s environmental ones as well.

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Disposable plastics are known to be a major factor in the death of wildlife and destruction of marine habitat. Improper disposal can also contribute to the spread of germs and viruses.

Plastic waste on the rise

Even before COVID-19, a 2018 World Bank report had indicated that global waste is expected to grow by 70% by 2050 unless nations take urgent action. The main culprit is plastic waste, which accounts for 12% of all solid waste worldwide. Since the study was conducted in 2018, researchers haven’t taken into account the waste brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic. In Wuhan, China, the initial epicenter of the virus, an average of 200 tons of medical waste per day was recorded during the outbreak. With the virus spreading all over the world, it is expected that medical waste will surge exponentially. And then, there’s also the surge in household garbage with more people spending time indoors and increased use of plastic in online shopping packaging and food deliveries.

There has been a rise of disposable plastic waste from home deliveries and subsequent food packaging. Credit: Valeria Boltneva.

Recycling efforts have taken a backseat to health measures limiting the spread of the coronavirus. Shops now prefer disposable plastic bags instead of reusable ones. Even the eco-friendly practices of big chains such as Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts that encourage customers to bring their own cups was stopped. It is evident that the use of plastic is becoming more prevalent even though experts say that the virus lasts longer on plastic surfaces.

The challenges of waste management during the pandemic

Proper disposal of household, medical, and hazardous wastes have always been a challenge, more so during this pandemic. According to the United Nations’ Environment Programme, “Effective management of biomedical and healthcare waste requires appropriate identification, collection, separation, storage, transportation, treatment and disposal, as well as important associated aspects including disinfection, personnel protection, and training.” These steps should be prioritised for effective emergency response. Proper waste management will minimise the hazards to public health and our environment.

World Bank’s Ede Ijjasz-Vasquez said, “Ensuring effective and proper solid waste management is critical to the achievement of Sustainable Development Goals.” These goals are founded on people’s health and well-being. When there is no proper waste management, it is always the poor people who are the most vulnerable. Health and environmental hazards put their lives at risk.

What can we do about it?

Waste management involves different sectors of the society working together. It is a global concern too. In April, the European Commission released a guide on waste management in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic; Lithuania’s Commissioner Virginijus Sinkevicius commented, “Proper waste management is part of the essential services underpinning the well-being of our citizens delivered by numerous companies dealing with waste and keeping the circular economy going.” The commission issued guidelines regarding the management of municipal waste, waste from healthcare facilities, health and safety of waste management operators, government funding, and information campaign. We can adapt these in our respective societies to help us in facing the challenge of waste management during this pandemic.

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1. Maintain regular waste collection

Local authorities must ensure the continuity of proper waste management. This includes waste collection and recycling services. In the U.S., there are disruptions in recycling facilities because Materials Recycling Facilities (MRFs) in some states have closed due to financial pressures, health concerns, and new guidelines at work. Many states have also stopped the collection of yard waste and bulk items. Authorities can learn from this. They can offer incentives to collection companies and workers to support and encourage them to continue their operations. Collectors are our environmental frontliners and they should be given due appreciation and receive protection for the essential work that they do.

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2. Support healthcare facilities

Healthcare facilities should have proper management of medical and non-medical waste. They should have concrete plans regarding the collection, storage, treatment and shipments of these waste materials. Should there be challenges and disruptions, they should coordinate with local authorities for support while maintaining proper handling and storage for the time being. Containers should be treated with disinfectant solutions regularly.

3. Lobbying for sustainable waste management and eco-friendly practices

Citizens can lobby for better policies on waste management, protection of health and safety of all those involved in the process, better funding, and robust efforts in raising awareness about the importance of proper waste management. This will make our government leaders prioritise this issue as they should. We can help concerned groups and agencies to spread information regarding this advocacy. Government should also see to it that waste collectors receive appropriate training and equipment so that they can do their work properly. Officials should be aggressive in implementing sustainable solid waste management and endorse eco-friendly practices such as recycling and sanitary landfilling.

In the U.S., use of UV light to decontaminate masks and PPEs and sanitise reusable systems to avoid the continuous use of disposable products are sound and environment-friendly practices to reduce waste. Other innovative measures to reduce medical waste involve the use of Battelle Memorial Institute’s Critical Care Decontamination System which can decontaminate N95 respirators with the use of concentrated hydrogen peroxide without affecting their performance. There are also washable PPEs that health workers and frontliners can reuse which also addresses the shortage problem during this pandemic.

Waste management in the time of COVID-19 is not a simple task but it can be done effectively. It challenges us to think about innovative approaches to be able to perform this essential undertaking. It asks us to give importance to our environmental frontliners. It reiterates the need for sustainable and environment-friendly practices. It tells us to prioritise our health and environment. But it all boils down to one thing: We need to act now. There’s no time to waste. Proper waste management saves lives.

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Cover image by Anna Shvets.

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