We use cookies to give you the best personal experience on our website. If you continue to use our site without changing your cookie settings, you agree we may place these cookies on your device. You can change your cookie settings at any time but if you do , you may lose some functionality on our website . More information can be found in our privacy policy.
Please provide more information.
Stylus no longer supports Internet Explorer 7, 8 or 9. Please upgrade to IE 11, Chrome, Safari, Firefox or Edge. This will ensure you have the best possible experience on the site.
Brief Published: 11 Nov 2021

Pandemic Worsens Ocean Plastic Pollution Crisis

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.