The COVID-19 pandemic caused a surge in demand for disposable plastics that has resulted in more than 25,000 tons of litter flowing into the world’s oceans, scientists in the United States and China reported on Monday.
The researchers estimated the amount of plastic waste generated by different countries, calculated how much was ferried to the sea by major rivers, and used computer models to simulate its journey through the global ocean. They found that the pandemic spawned more than 8 million tons of plastic debris from hospitals, personal protective equipment, and online shopping, and most of the waste that reaches the ocean will wind up in beaches and coastal sediments.
“This poses a long-lasting problem for the ocean environment,” the team, which included researchers from Nanjing University and the University of California San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography, wrote in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “We call for better medical waste management in pandemic epicenters, especially in developing countries.”
The emergence of COVID-19 represents the most severe pandemic yet to occur in an era of plastics and disposable items, noted João Canning Clode, a marine ecologist at Portugal’s Marine and Environmental Sciences Centre and the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center in Maryland, who has written about the potential ways that the COVID-19 pandemic could exacerbate marine pollution.
As cases climbed, reaching 212 million people worldwide by August 23, 2021, so did the amount of medical waste that contained plastic. This included COVID-19 testing kits and personal protective equipment such as face masks, gloves, and face shields. Single-use items such as plastic cutlery were also used to minimize the risk of spreading the novel coronavirus, particularly before vaccines became available, Canning Clode told Popular Science in an email.