How has an increase in plastic waste from the COVID-19 pandemic affected our oceans?

In a paper from November 2021, researchers Yiming Peng, Peipei Wu, Amina T. Schartup, and Yanxu Zhang examined the effect of plastic waste caused by COVID-19 on the global ocean:

Plastic waste causes harm to marine life and has become a major global environmental concern. The recent COVID-19 pandemic has led to an increased demand for single-use plastic, intensifying pressure on this already out-of-control problem. This work shows that more than eight million tons of pandemic-associated plastic waste have been generated globally, with more than 25,000 tons entering the global ocean. Most of the plastic is from medical waste generated by hospitals that dwarfs the contribution from personal protection equipment and online-shopping package material. This poses a long-lasting problem for the ocean environment and is mainly accumulated on beaches and coastal sediments. We call for better medical waste management in pandemic epicenters, especially in developing countries.

In an article a few months earlier, Christian Dunn wrote about our increased plastic use:

Plastic has shown yet again what a wonderful, versatile and lifesaving product it can be. Without it, the pandemic would be going very differently. However, it is all too easy to forget this when stepping over the Covid cast-offs littering our streets. Single-use face masks, surgical gloves, tiny bottles of hand sanitiser and antiseptic wipes have become as common as cigarettes butts were a few years ago.

As much as we can do to minimise our plastic use as individuals and collectively as a society, it’s primarily down to the companies who package our goods to be more conscious. It’s all too easy to point fingers at people when big businesses get away with most of the harmful effects. That’s when “a drop in the ocean” in regards to our efforts starts to take on a more poignant meaning.

Read the full paper on the PNAS website.

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