How Covid made the world’s waste problem worse

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In 2020, when coronavirus shutdowns emptied public spaces and the chirping of birds replaced the drone of cars and planes, some saw an opportunity to embrace a slower, more mindful lifestyle and give the priority to the health of the planet rather than unlimited consumption. It was not so. An increase in e-commerce and online meal deliveries means humanity is spewing out trash like never before. And an avalanche of discarded face masks, gloves, syringes and test kits that have saved countless lives has left a deadly legacy to the natural world.

1. How much waste has the pandemic generated?

More than 530 million tonnes of plastic waste was created in the first seven months of the Covid-19 outbreak, suggesting the total for 2020 would be at least double that of 2019, according to an article in Nature. Singapore’s takeaway and home delivery services alone left an additional 1.21 million tonnes of plastic discarded during the city-state’s lockdown from April to May 2020.

2. Where did it all end?

Many never reached garbage facilities and ended up littering the landscape or shattering into tiny particles that made their way into the ground, rivers and sea. US utilities have complained that masks and other virus-related waste was flushed down toilets, clogged pipes and sewage treatment facilities. Some 1.56 billion face masks may have found their way into the oceans by 2020, according to a study carried out that year by campaign group OceansAsia. Conservation groups have recorded an increase in the amount of masks, wipes and gloves piling up on beaches from Hong Kong to California. The Marine Mammal Center, which rescues and rehabilitates whales, dolphins and seals, has found animals drowning after becoming entangled in the materials or dying from ingesting them.

3. Why is the medical industry addicted to plastic?

It’s cheap, plentiful, can be molded into all sorts of shapes and textures, and is a very effective shield against viruses and bacteria, making it ideal for personal protective equipment or PPE. Unlike glass or ceramic, it can be flexible and very lightweight, and it won’t rot or corrode like wood or metal.

4. Can’t you just recycle it?

Plastics that filter out virus particles are not considered safe to use more than once, or to touch afterwards without protection. Other PPE that could normally be recycled ends up being misclassified as hazardous. Many products are composites of different plastics, making them impossible to recycle. The most common disposable masks are a three-layer construction of smooth cellulose, melt-blown polypropylene, and polyester, plus a metal nose strip. To be reused, each of these layers and the metal would have to be separated, which cannot be done in most landfills. They are therefore usually collected, baled and sent to landfill, or burned – releasing particles into the atmosphere which turn into “plastic rain” or “plastic smog” which can enter food, drinking water and the air you breathe.

5. How much ordinary waste is recycled?

It depends where you are. More than half of German waste is reused. In the United States, about a third was recycled or composted in 2018. In 2016, it cost New York $18 per ton more to collect and process recyclable materials than it did to dispose of regular waste. Since then, recycling costs have increased, in part because China stopped buying waste from other countries in 2017. There is still a healthy market for the relatively hard plastics in laundry detergent bottles and Bottles of water. But much of the rest is difficult to recycle because it contains mixtures of materials that must be separated using specialized machinery. Improper recycling also increases the cost. For example, a single pizza box in a pile of cardboard recycling can ruin the whole lot because the oils it contains cannot be separated from the paper fiber.

The pandemic has led more and more people to use recycling platforms like the Freecycle Network, where around 1,000 tonnes of items now change hands every day, roughly the amount of waste that ends up in a landfill medium sized. From France to India, entrepreneurs are experimenting with turning plastic waste into building bricks, school chairs, 3D printer filament and yarn for clothing. Some are turning face masks into new products like face shields by fusing them with new types of plastics. There are experiments with plastics that biodegrade or contain natural ingredients. Another alternative is to make more packaging products from more easily reusable materials, such as glass or metals. None of these proposed solutions come close to reversing a growing waste problem. Greenpeace estimated that online shopping in China generated 9.4 million tonnes of packaging in 2018, and that could rise to 41 million tonnes by 2025.

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