The rise of the disposable plastic culture of the COVID-19 era
Justine Ammendolia (she/her)
Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada
Plastic and the pandemic
Light blue disposable facemasks, disposable gloves and containers of disposable wet wipes, became symbols of the COVID-19 pandemic since have assumed an important role to protect against the SARS-CoV-2 virus transmission. Despite the undisputable importance of these items in protecting society, and notably our healthcare sector, the widespread consumption and disposable nature of personal protective equipment (PPE) has resulted in staggering volumes of waste during the pandemic. Plastic waste has also been generated by the increased consumption of single-use plastic (SUPs) resulting from restaurant take-out (i.e. disposable containers and cutlery) and temporary bans on the use of reusable products (i.e. shopping bags and travel mugs) (1,2). The exact quantities of plastic waste produced during the pandemic both globally, and in Canada, are unknown.
The rise of disposable plastics During the Pandemic
The global market of PPE increased from the 2019 pre-pandemic value of $800 million (USD) to over $166 billion (USD) in the first year of the pandemic (3,4). It has been estimated that globally per month, 129 billion facemasks and 65 billion gloves were used2. On a national scale, Health Canada estimated that 63,000 tons of PPE waste would be produced from medical sector in 2020 (5). As there have been different peaks of COVID-19 cases and varying availability of PPE, the estimates of waste production have not been static through the pandemic and may have fluctuated from month to month.
The mass consumption of disposable products generally results in waste mismanagement and litter. Of the facemasks used in 2020, 1.56 billion facemasks were thought to enter oceans (6), while community scientists around the world removed 107,219 pieces of PPE from beaches (7). Overall, discarded PPE has been found in environments all over the world ranging from cities to forests to coastlines; and various animals have been harmed by this litter (8). While the quantities of SUP litter have not been well investigated, the Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup found that food and beverage SUP litter increased from 2019 to 2020, indicating that the restaurant take-away culture impacted litter profiles (9). Temporary bans of customers being able to use reusable products have resulted in an increased social reliance on SUPs (2). This could potentially have shifted social preference to disposable products for their perceived sterility over reusable products.
Canadian Guidelines on PPE Disposal
In Canada, PPE waste was collected and treated in accordance to municipal guidelines. During the pandemic, many municipalities requested that citizens place contaminated PPE waste in two plastic bags and discard the contents in the regular municipal wastebins10. Similarly, within the Canadian healthcare system, the majority of used PPE is not deemed non-dangerous material and is landfilled (11). The dangerous waste, which is considered biohazardous (i.e. contaminated with bodily fluids), either undergoes disinfection and is landfilled or just incinerated (11).
Efforts to process PPE waste separately have been undertaken by private organizations in Canada; whereby collection services use designated boxes to collect PPE waste, which is then transported to the United States to be recycled (12). Generally, these services are available on a pay-per-box basis. In response to the growing need to sustainably cope with PPE waste, the National Research Council of Canada and Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) launched a funding program to encourage the development of recycling technologies for PPE waste (5).
Moving forward: Redefining our relationship with disposable plastics?
Despite the importance of disposable plastics during the pandemic, the volume consumed and mismanaged into the environment has been staggering. The public health crisis has also hindered federal action on reducing SUPs by postponing the implementation of the nationwide SUP ban (13). However, it was announced in late 2021 that the ban would be implemented in late 2022 (13,14). The Single Use Plastics Prohibition Regulations would prohibit the production, import and commercial sale of six SUPs, including plastic bags, cutlery, foodservice containers, food ring carriers, stir sticks and straws (14). The first international plastic treaty was signed to create a legally binding treaty, which aims to be published in 2024 (15).
It appears there is political momentum and social pressure to take robust actions on reducing plastic production and improve the sustainability of waste management. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted gaps in our inability to calibrate actions for both human and environmental health. The challenges surrounding PPE consumption and waste management have not been fully addressed by policies, which is particularly concerning given that such items might be here to stay, past following end of the pandemic.
- CBC. “ Fears of coronavirus contamination prompt coffee chains to temporarily ban reusable mugs” (2020).
- J.C. Prata Silva et al., Environ. Sci. Technol. 54 (13), 7760e7765. (2020).
- A.L. Allison et al., UCL Open Environment, 3. (2021).
- H.L. Wu et al., EClinicalMedicine, 21, 100329. (2020).
- Government of Canada. “COVID-19: Recycling technologies for disposable (single-use) Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) used in healthcare sector” (2020).
- OceansAsia. “COVID-19 facemasks & marine plastic pollution” (2020).
- Ocean Conservancy. “Pandemic pollution and the rising tide of PPE” (2021).
- A.F. Hiemstra et al., Anim. Biol. 71(2), 215-231. (2021).
- World Wildlife Fund. “Percentage of single-use food packaging litter nearly doubled during COVID-19 report finds” (2021).
- City of Toronto. “COVID-19: Changes to city services” (2020).
- Ministère de la Santé et des Services Sociaux. Guide de gestion des dechets du reseau de la santé et des services sociaux (2017).
- Terracycle. “Recycling of personal protective equipment” (2022)
- CBC. “Feds moving to ban plastic straws, bags by end of 2022: Guilbeault” (2021).
- Government of Canada. “Canada Gazette, Part I, Volume 155, Number 52: Single-use plastics prohibition regulations” (2021).
- CBC. “UN agrees to create global plastic pollution treaty” (2022).