From the beaches in the Mediterranean to Lantau Island in Hong Kong, a new kind of waste is washing ashore in disturbing quantities - used face masks, disposable gloves and discarded hand sanitiser bottles. Covid-19 may have dealt a body blow to sectors such as aviation and tourism, but it has been very good business for those in the plastics industry, which prior to the pandemic was battling a growing awareness of the environmental dangers posed by rising amounts of disposable products. While it is critical that there be sufficient personal protection equipment (PPE) to safeguard healthcare workers and stop the spread of the virus, it is important too to not lose sight of the longer-term challenge of protecting the environment from the relentless tide of plastic pollution.
Consider the magnitude of the problem: PPE is single-use by design and made of different sorts of plastic such as polypropylene and polyethylene in masks and gowns, and nitrile and vinyl in gloves. Covid-19 has also led to a surge of online orders and takeaway meals, adding to the need for plastic in disposable wrapping and tableware.
The numbers involved are staggering. China estimates that Wuhan hospitals produced more than 240 tonnes of waste daily at the height of the outbreak, compared with 40 tonnes normally. Global sales of disposable face masks alone are set to grow from an estimated US$800 million in 2019 to US$166 billion (S$227 billion) this year, according to an Unctad report this week. The US could generate a year's worth of medical waste in just two months, according to another study. The Thailand Environment Institute reckons that plastic waste in the country has shot up from 1,500 tonnes to 6,300 tonnes a day, largely because of surging home food deliveries. Plastic pollution was already one of the greatest threats to the planet before the coronavirus outbreak, said Ms Pamela Coke-Hamilton, Unctad's director of international trade. The sudden boom in the daily use of certain products to keep people safe and stop the disease is making things much worse.
What's to be done? There is no easy solution while the world is struggling to contain the disease and PPE is part of the solution. Hospital waste is incinerated - not a perfect option but better than the public's hazardous littering of used faced masks.
More could be done to raise awareness of "Covid waste" and to encourage businesses and consumers to go for environmentally friendly, reusable options. It could be as simple as an opt-out option for plastic utensils on food delivery apps. In the longer term, policymakers should use this challenge to step up efforts to build better waste management systems. The world ignored early warnings of a pandemic. It should not do so again with the warnings of a plastic waste crisis.