There are two major things going on at the moment: the planet is melting, and everybody on it has spent the last two years getting sick.
It turns out those two huge problems have combined to make another problem that threatens to undermine our progress in tackling both. Between the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and the end of August 2021, around 8.4 million tons of pandemic-associated plastic waste has been added to humanity’s already staggering collective plastic trash pile. Demand for personal protective equipment has led to legislation against single-use plastics being paused or withdrawn, and there’s set to be 11 million tons of marine life-injuring, penguin-killing, and potentially even COVID-19-spreading plastic waste discarded across the planet by the end of the year, with 34,000 tons making it to the ocean.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has led to an increased demand for single-use plastics that intensifies pressure on an already out-of-control global plastic waste problem,” explains a new paper, published this month in PNAS. “Here, we use our MITgcm ocean plastic model to quantify the impact of the pandemic on plastic discharge"
The authors project that "a significant portion of plastic debris landing on the beach and seabed later and a circumpolar plastic accumulation zone will be formed in the Arctic.”
This MITgcm, or MIT General Circulation Model, is a sophisticated program developed by MIT that models ocean and atmosphere dynamics. In other words, as study author Yanxu Zhang explained in a statement, it creates “a virtual reality” that “simulates how the seawater moves driven by wind and how the plastics float on the surface ocean.”
Most of the plastics, the simulation revealed, will settle on beaches and the seafloor – both places already heaving with the weight of our plastic pollution. But due to the way the ocean currents behave, a smaller amount is likely to either stay circulating in the ocean, or end up at what researchers know as the “dead end” for plastic: the Arctic ocean.
“There is a pretty consistent circulation pattern in the ocean, and that's why we can build models that replicate how the ocean moves – it's just physical oceanography at this point,” explained study co-author Amina Schartup. “We know that if waste is released from Asian rivers into the North Pacific Ocean, some of that debris will likely end up in the Arctic Ocean – a kind of a circular ocean which can be a bit like an estuary, accumulating all kinds of things that get released from the continents.”
And waste is most definitely being released from Asian rivers: the study found that they were the source of nearly three-quarters of plastic discharge into the ocean. This, the authors point out, isn’t due to the continent having more cases than elsewhere – the Americas actually have a higher total, despite their being a month or two late to the COVID-19 infection game. In fact, the study found that the vast majority of the pandemic waste came from hospitals, and the authors say the problem stems from established shortages in developing countries.
“When we started doing the math, we were surprised to find that the amount of medical waste was substantially larger than the amount of waste from individuals, and a lot of it was coming from Asian countries, even though that's not where most of the COVID-19 cases were,” Schartup explained. “The biggest sources of excess waste were hospitals in areas already struggling with waste management before the pandemic; they just weren't set up to handle a situation where you have more waste.”
To counter this problem, the authors say we need big changes: “Innovative technologies need to be promoted,” says the paper, looking for better methods of “plastic waste collection, classification, treatment, and recycling.” Also on the agenda should be the search for more environmentally friendly materials, they write – along with a huge update of medical waste management in developing countries.
“COVID-related plastic is only a portion of a bigger problem we face in the 21st century: plastic waste,” Zhang said. “To solve it requires a lot of technical renovation, transition of economy, and change of lifestyle.”