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Brief Published: 11 Nov 2021

Pandemic Worsens Ocean Plastic Pollution Crisis

Extra
An estimated 25,900 tonnes of mismanaged plastic waste is believed to have leaked into global oceans

A new report published in online journal PNAS has revealed the magnitude of plastic pollution caused by the pandemic. An estimated 25,900 tonnes of mismanaged waste – the majority of which was generated by hospitals, rather than public use of personal protective equipment (PPE) – is believed to have leaked into our oceans.

As outlined in our Resetting Plastics report, the coronavirus has amplified our complex relationship with disposable, single-use plastics. And this increased demand has simply intensified the world’s plastic pollution crisis.

The study, from a team at Nanjing University in China, found that about 8.4m tonnes of pandemic-related plastic waste has been generated by 193 countries. Forty-six per cent came from Asia, followed by 24% from Europe, and 22% from North and South America. Hospitals accounted for 87.4% of the total output, while individual PPE contributed 7.6%, and packaging and test kits 4.7% and 0.3% respectively.

Using the university’s newly developed ocean plastic numerical model (MITgcm), the researchers have identified 369 major rivers linked to pandemic-associated plastic discharge in our oceans. The top three are Shatt al-Arab in south-eastern Iraq (which carried 5,200 tonnes of PPE waste); Indus, which rises in Tibet (4,000 tonnes); and China’s Yangtze river (3,700 tonnes). Meanwhile, in Europe, the Danube carried the most into the ocean – 1,700 tonnes.

With the pandemic still not under complete control, the study estimates associated plastic waste will reach a total of 11m tonnes, resulting in a global riverine discharge of 34,000 tonnes to the ocean. 

Along with the need for better medical waste management in pandemic epicentres, the report highlights the desperate need for innovation – from the development of eco-conscious plastic materials, to improved waste collection and circular and recycling technologies. See The Plastics Landscape 2021 for further discussion on this topic.

See Plastic-Free Compostable PPE, Green Solutions for Covid-19 Waste and our Materials Evolution S/S 22 for some inspiring explorations into combatting healthcare plastic pollution and the wider plastic waste problem.

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