Comparing before and after photos, most people thought that reduced air pollution may have only been COVID-19 pandemic’s redeeming quality. Indeed, as the world stood to a virtual standstill—putting airline operations to a halt, forcing the shift to work–from-home scheme, and ceasing most manufacturing processes—the earth sighed a temporary sigh of relief.
However, as restrictions were eased in an effort to revive the global economy, carbon emissions became an environmental burden once again.
Perhaps the pandemic’s most perilous environmental impact comes from the tons of plastic waste, main disposables such as face masks, disposable nitrile gloves, personal protective equipment (PPE), face shields, syringe, making waste management a serious challenge.
Here’s a closer look at how the COVID-19 disposables impact the environment:
1. Exponential Rise in Plastic Demand and Waste
The pandemic has increased the demand for plastics in the healthcare sector and even in our households. Plastic pollution brings a host of environmental problems, with many ending up in landfills for, possibly, eternity. That’s why environmentalists have long been calling for measures to reduce plastic waste.
Healthcare demand: To protect healthcare workers, wearing PPE has become mandatory in hospitals and other medical facilities. Apart from PPE, medical staff are required to wear face masks, gloves, face shields, and gowns.
At the height of the pandemic, hospitals in Wuhan, touted as the COVID-19 epicentre, reportedly generated more than 240 tons of single-use plastic-based medical waste on a daily basis, based on an article published in South China Morning Post on March 12, 2020. This figure is said to be six times more than the daily pre-pandemic rates.
General demand: Minimal health safety protocols encourage the use of face masks, face shields, hand sanitisers, and alcohol— all of which include plastic, particularly their packaging. Surgical masks dominate the landfills and garbage bins, being that the majority are wearing disposable and one-day use face covers.
A study indicated that a one mask per day rule could generate a worldwide monthly consumption and waste of 129 billion face masks and 65 billion gloves.
Household waste: A shift in peoples’ lifestyle has increased the need for plastics too. Apart from the usual protective and disinfecting products, workers and individuals stuck in their homes leaned toward food-to-go encased in plastic.
Additives in plastics make it more functional, durable and flexible. These additives, however, increase the shelf life of plastics, which industry estimates could take more than 400 years before breaking down.
2. Incineration = Air Pollution
Soiled tissues and face masks should be disposed of in garbage bins, while medical wastes used by patients and hospital workers must be sterilized before being incinerated, based on the World Health Organization’s (WHO’s) health guidelines.
Unfortunately, not all countries have the capacity to meet the international emission standards by using state-of-the-art incinerators operating at 850-1100°C and with gas-cleaning equipment.
Pre-COVID 19 pandemic, most countries throw their plastics in landfills, with some opting to burn plastic and other wastes. This practice, however, is dangerous to both the environment and people, as potentially toxic and harmful chemicals are released in the air or stick to the ash residues.
Apart from affecting air quality, the chemicals released in burning plastics, are said to potentially aggravate asthma and other respiratory conditions, endocrine disruption, and specific forms of cancer, when inhaled regularly.
3. Plastics Manufacturing Processes Contribute to Global Warming
The majority of plastics are created from fossil fuels such as oil and natural gas. Unfortunately, the extraction of these resources produces toxic emissions and potentially dangerous chemicals such as benzene, carbon monoxide, ethylbenzene, hydrogen sulfide, ozone, sulfur dioxide, toluene, and xylene.
As the demand for plastics increased exponentially due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the manufacturing sector was forced to keep up, working faster than normal. Plastic manufacturing processes involve several stages, with each stage contributing to air pollution and global warming.
4. Endangersthe Marine Ecosystem
Air pollution and global warming are not the only major environmental issues facing the world post-pandemic. Challenges in proper waste management saw thousands of face masks, gloves and other plastics finding their way into several bodies of water worldwide, endangering the marine ecosystem and its aquatic inhabitants. The National Geographic estimates that the world produces at least eight million tons of plastic waste; this figure merely reflects the volume of plastic wastes along with the coastal areas.
Most plastics end up in the digestive tracts of various marine animals such as turtles, whales, fish, and even birds, which often mistake them for food. Wrongfully ingesting these COVID-19 disposables lead to malnutrition, intestinal blockage, or slow poisoning from chemicals leaking from these plastics.
The pandemic has not only led to the loss of thousands of lives worldwide. On a global scale, it has put our planet in a difficult position too. Unless we do something right now, we may further put the world’s future in peril.