A team of researchers at Korea University, Seoul, has written an eye-opening evaluation of the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on plastic pollution. Their article, published recently in Nature Reviews Earth & Environment, includes a call to action for industry stakeholders, governments, and consumers to reverse the troubling shift toward more pollution and less circularity for plastics.
Yong Sik Ok, professor and global research director at Korea University, headed the team of researchers who wrote the article, entitled “The COVID-19 pandemic necessitates a shift to a plastic circular economy.”
The researchers highlight the enormous increase in plastic consumption and waste that occurred when the pandemic began, estimating that total plastic waste for 2020 was double that of 2019. Much of the increased waste was from disposable personal protective equipment (PPE) — including masks, gloves, and other protective gear — and packaging waste from cleaning products such as hand sanitizer.
In addition, “the consumption of plastic packaging by takeaway services, e-commerce outlets and express delivery industries increased extensively with social distancing requirements,” the researchers write. “Takeaway and home delivery services generated additional 1.21 Mt [metric tons] (or 2,668 tons) of plastic waste from April to May 2020 during the lockdown in Singapore alone.”
Much of the extra waste, globally, never made its way to recycling streams, with a discouraging amount becoming litter on the ground or in waterways.
Compounding the problem, “some regulatory measures meant to reduce plastic have been delayed and/or rolled back during the pandemic, stalling, or even reversing the longstanding global battle to mitigate plastic pollution,” state researchers.
Going forward, the researchers encourage adoption of new, sustainable waste management practices to keep up with increased waste generation, with stakeholders ranging from plastics manufacturers to consumers participating.
Governments can do their part by creating new waste-management policies and incentives. Industry stakeholders, meanwhile, can improve plastic waste collection, develop biodegradable plastics and other sustainable products, integrate mechanical and chemical recycling, and upcycle plastic waste using renewable energy.
As for consumers, adopting a refuse/reduce/reuse mindset and choosing plastic-free products and packaging when possible will help reduce the sheer volume of plastic waste.
Finally, the researchers emphasize the importance of a sustainable circular economy for plastics not only as the pandemic lingers but also afterwards, noting, “achieving this goal requires cooperation between consumers, researchers, governments and industries.”