new research reveals that 193 countries generated more than eight million tons of plastic waste during the coronavirus pandemic, 25,900 tons of which have ended up in our oceans.‘the recent COVID-19 pandemic has led to an increased demand for single-use plastic, intensifying pressure on this already out-of-control problem,’  said authors yiming peng, peipei wu, amina t. schartup, and yanxu zhang in the study published in online journal PNAS. 


‘this poses a long-lasting problem for the ocean environment and is mainly accumulated on beaches and coastal sediments,’ they commented.


the researchers from nanjing university in china found that 87.4% of pandemic-related mismanaged plastic waste (MMPW) came from hospitals, with individual PPE, such as facemasks, accounting for only 7.6%. the team also looked at the impact of plastic packaging from online shopping, which soared during lockdown, but found it contributed just 4.7%. test kits made up another 0.3%.


‘most of the plastic is from medical waste generated by hospitals that dwarfs the contribution from personal protection equipment and online-shopping package material,’ wrote the team.


the study also looked at where in the world most of the waste came from. according to the report, MMPW doesn’t follow coronavirus case distribution, as most MMPW was produced in asia (46%), followed by europe (24%), and finally in north and south america (22%).


the 25,900 tons of pandemic-related plastic waste that’s now in the global ocean made its way there from 369 major rivers. the scientists identified three rivers in asia as hotspots for pandemic-associated plastic waste discharge. 5.2 thousand tons of plastic waste were carried to the ocean from the shatt al arab river. 4.0 thousand tons from the indus, and 3.7 thousand tons from the yangtze river. the biggest culprit in europe was the danube river, which carried 1.7 thousand tons of plastic waste into the ocean.


using the nanjing university MITgcm-plastic model (NJU-MP), the team suggests that the pandemic-related plastic waste will remain in coastal environments before expanding to the open ocean in 3 to 4 years. 


‘at the end of this century, the model suggests that almost all the pandemic-associated plastics end up in either the seabed (28.8%) or beaches (70.5%), potentially hurting the benthic ecosystems,’ said the researchers.


the findings also highlight the vulnerability of the arctic ocean, with a circumpolar plastic accumulation zone modeled to form there by 2025.


as the pandemic rumbles on, the study estimates that the generated plastic waste will reach a total of 11 million tons, resulting in a global riverine discharge of 34,000 tons to the ocean. to help abate the issue, the authors of the paper call for increased public awareness, more innovative plastic waste collection, classification, treatment, and recycling, and the development of more environmentally friendly materials.


they added, ‘we call for better medical waste management in pandemic epicenters, especially in developing countries.’



main image by @naja_bertolt_jensen via unsplash