SAN FRANCISCO — Single-use plastics have been a lifeline in the fight against COVID-19, protecting healthcare workers with disposable gloves, face masks, and gowns. Additionally single-use plastics have helped facilitate adherence to social-distancing mandates while supporting businesses online, through items such as plastic packaging and styrofoam for online shipping, plastic cutlery and meal containers, grocery bags, and numerous plastic water bottles.
But as human waste piles up in landfills and covers coastal waters, the crisis of single-use plastics has been illuminated vividly. For a population of 7.8 billion, there has been a monthly estimated use of 65 billion gloves and 129 billion face masks during the COVID-19 pandemic. Incorrect disposal of used personal protective equipment (PPE) can be found all over the world littering public spaces. Assuming PPE equipment is used at this rate for 18 months, that would result in two trillion three hundred twenty-two billion masks of plastic waste. Since 91% of plastics are never recycled, this litter will persist in the environment for hundreds of years, igniting a crisis of plastic consumption and waste products. The single-use plastic problem is the global environmental crisis we continue to ignore, and if not careful, short-term solutions to protect humans from the coronavirus pandemic may bring large environmental and public health crises in the future.
Plastic Initiatives Prior to the Pandemic
Prior to the pandemic, many countries took action to prevent single-use plastic employment. In 2018, Indian Prime Minister Modi announced the country’s intent to eliminate all single-use plastic in the country by 2022. In July 2018, Chile’s congress approved a ban on retail use of plastic bags, with steps to phase out plastic bag usage over the following two years. In October 2018, the United States amended the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Marine Debris Act, funding the program through 2022. In January 2019, Peru banned visitors from bringing single-use plastics into it’s 76 natural and cultural protected areas. In early 2019, the European Parliament voted to ban single-use plastic items, such as straws and food containers, by 2021. Even major global companies have come together to help mitigate the plastic crisis. The New Plastics Economy Global Commitment, including companies such as Coca-Cola, L’oreal, and H&M, has worked to reuse and repurpose plastic to promote a more sustainable economy for plastics.
These efforts supported larger global initiatives such as the United Nations 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The UN SDGs are a set of 17 goals with 169 targets attempting to create a global agenda for sustainable development through economic, social, and environmental action. Goal 12 targets primarily focus on implementing sustainable management of natural resources, reducing waste generation, adopting sustainability practices, and creating tools to monitor waste production. Government’s actions on mitigating plastic waste by banning single-use plastic helped support this goal and have created actionable plans to ensure sustainable consumption and production.
However, increased consumption of single-use plastics, including personal protective equipment, has increased poor environmental practices and works contrary to global efforts for environmental sustainability.
Some positives for global sustainability have emerged from the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic has indirectly contributed to SDG goal 13 through reducing greenhouse gas emissions and lowering outdoor air pollution. SDG goals 13 aims to “take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts.” However, this progress is not the solution to stopping climate change, and this progress is a short term gain. Global efforts to mitigate climate change will still need to occur to meet goal 13’s target.
The Growing Crisis of Single-Use Plastic
Since December 2019, the world has felt the ever-growing effects of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. In an attempt to ‘flatten the curve,’ governments worldwide implemented precautionary measures to protect citizens through guidelines such as social distancing. What started as a health crisis has also morphed into a global economic and environmental threat, particularly regarding the consumption of plastics.
Cities with high COVID-19 infection rates have struggled to manage large increases in medical waste. In Barcelona, medical waste, which includes gloves and face masks, increased by 350%, generating approximately 1,200 tons of medical waste compared to the usual average of 275 tons. The drastic increases in medical waste are leaving countries with inadequate waste management systems, resulting in masks, gloves, sanitizer bottles, and other protective equipment piling up on coastal shores.
“With a lifespan of 450 years, these [disposable surgical]masks are an ecological timebomb given their lasting environmental consequences for our planet,” wrote Éric Pauget, a French politician, in a letter to French President Emmanual Macron.
In an effort to dispose of medical waste, some municipalities in India have relied on the incineration of medical waste. However, this only further contributes to the releasing of greenhouse gases and other potentially harmful toxins. This style of waste management can cause future health problems by impacting air quality and increasing risks related to climate change mitigation.
During the pandemic, increased demand for single-use plastics has caused some countries, such as the United States, to delay single-use plastic bans amid COVID-19 concerns. In October 2020, following over 6 months in delay, New York implemented a plastic bag ban. Plastic bag bans in Maine and Oregon were postponed. In California, a single use plastic bag ban that had been in place since 2016, was suspended. Postponements, suspensions, and failed implementation of plastic bag bans have only hurt global consumption of single-use plastic bags.
Growing consumption of single-use plastic and poor disposal of the amassing waste is a concerning global problem not only for humans, but for wildlife and the environment as well.
The Effects of Single-Use Plastic on the Environment
According to the UN Environment Program (UNEP), more than 8.3 billion tons of plastic have been produced since the early 1950s, with about 60% of that plastic landing in landfills or the natural environment.
More than 99% of plastics are produced from non-renewable sources, such as oil and coal. Moreover, only 9% of all plastic waste produced is recycled, with 12% being incinerated and the remaining 79% accumulating across the globe in cities, oceans, and landfills. The current increase of single-use plastics from large-scale global production of single-use protective equipment and a 6-10% increase in online shopping, according to the UN Conference on Trade and Development. This will lead to millions of tons of plastic being thrown out, with unclear solutions to mitigate the growing crisis.
According to the UNEP, eight million tons of plastic end up in the world’s oceans each year, with the Chang Jiang River in China carrying over 1 million tons of plastic alone. Rivers can serve as easy pathways for plastic to travel into oceans and impact wildlife. Properties that make plastic useful, such as its resilience to degradation, make it nearly impossible for nature to break down. As plastic is broken into smaller pieces by natural weathering, the resulting microplastics can be consumed by marine life and enter the human food chain through fish consumption. Over 170 marine species have been recorded as having ingested human-made plastics. A study from the International Journal of Molecular Sciences found that in fish, microplastics have been found to cause major adverse effects including oxidative stress and intestinal damage. Beyond ingestion, marine wildlife can get entangled in plastics. Moreover, the accumulation of debris can disrupt marine ecosystems such as damaging coral reefs and affecting the feeding habits of marine life.
There has been minimal research on the effects of human marine wildlife consumption of plastics. It is still unknown what potential risks microplastic consumption may have for humans and wildlife in the long-term. However, adverse effects in marine ecosystems illuminate concerns for the health effects of plastic consumption in humans.
The Economic Impact
From an economic standpoint, plastic waste landing on shorelines can have serious economic consequences for communities reliant on tourism and fishing. In 2014, the United Nations estimated that plastic waste causes $13 billion in annual damage to marine ecosystems.
Besides consequences on marine life and communities which rely on marine sustainability, single-use plastics are harmful for the economy. Plastics are workhorse materials in today’s economy. Able to be created at low and efficient rates which have versatile function, plastic is integral to everyday life. However, plastic usually has a very linear lifespan of make, use, dispose. This is problematic because most of the material ends up as waste. Large organizations, such as the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, which launched the New Plastic Economy initiative in 2016, have suggested that the best way to economically benefit from plastic is to shift to a circular economy for plastics. The circular economy is an economic system in which from the outset, materials are designed to ensure they are not used up.
Essentially, the maximum value of every product is used systematically to support reusable solutions while benefiting the environment and the economy. If done correctly, a circular economy should bolster productivity in society, such as incorporating new jobs, help the environment by producing less waste, and help the economy through less spending on waste management and clean up while preventing economic losses.
After a first-use cycle, 95% of plastic packaging material value – equivalent to about $80 to $120 billion annually — is lost. These economic losses are further compounded by the 32% of plastic packaging which escapes collection systems, resulting in economic cleanup costs. Furthermore, approximately $40 billion is spent on clean-up externalities for plastic packaging materials, which “exceeds the plastic packaging industry’s profit pool.”
In the future, countries around the world will need to pay for these costs. By improving the plastic lifecycle and creating a circular economy system, governments and nations around the world can achieve better economic and environmental outcomes. A transition like this would require a coordinated effort among governments, policy makers, and financial investors. Some critical steps are being taken to begin this process, but many countries still need to address mitigating current plastic waste and usage.
Efforts to Combat Single-Use Plastic Usage
According to the UNEP, 99 countries have introduced measures to mitigate plastic bag usage. For example, In 2020, China announced plans to ban single-use plastics across the country by 2022. This legislation could immensely reduce single-use plastic waste globally because, as of 2020, China is the world’s largest producer and one of the largest users of plastics.
However, the continued strategy of many countries to export plastic waste abroad is concerning for plastic waste reduction. As of 2020, the United States is the world’s largest plastic waste producer, with the United Kingdom as a close second. Data from 2016 shows that half of the plastic collected for recycling in the U.S. was sent abroad. In 2019, data from the European Environment Agency showed that the European Union exported 150,000 tons of plastic waste per month, with approximately double the rate in 2015 and 2016. Majority of this waste was shipped to China and Hong Kong.
In 2018, China banned the import of plastic waste, with some other countries such as Indonesia and Thailand placing restrictions as well. A Guardian investigation from 2019 found that U.S. plastic was being sent to countries in which environmental regulations are limited and labor is cheap. Many of the countries the United States is shipping its plastic waste to are poorly ranked on how they handle their country’s internal plastic waste. One study found that Malaysia, the biggest recipient of U.S. plastic recycling since the China ban, mismanaged over half of its plastic waste.
The practice of larger and economically stronger nations exporting plastic waste to other countries with laxer regulations does nothing to mitigate the effects of plastic waste. Rather, plastic waste still ends up impacting the environment and biodiversity, just in different parts of the globe.
Global awareness and cooperation have begun to emerge as the plastic consumption and waste crisis continues to grow. Efforts, such as the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals were created to help increase global sustainability. Goals 12, 13 and 14 tie directly into the plastic conversation. Goal 12 aims to implement sustainability practices and monitor waste production, goal 13 to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and 14 aims to reduce marine pollution of all kinds and address ocean resilience to marine debris and pollution. Reduction of plastic usage can have major impacts on wildlife, and can help reduce environmental degradation. Working in tandem these goals can have a major impact on the mitigation of single-use plastics waste. With 193 countries formally adopting the UN SDGs, economic and environmental legislation focused on these targets are likely to grow further as 2030 approaches.
Another global strategy to help mitigate plastic waste is being explored by the World Trade Organization (WTO). In November 2020, as part of the WTO’s Trade and Environment Week, multiple countries initiated the ‘Open-ended Informal Dialogue on Plastic Pollution and Environmentally Sustainable Plastics Trade.’ This week of WTO member-led events and workshops was prompted by efforts to build a greener and more sustainable global trade system as global trade recovers form COVID-19. The dialogue aims to “explore how improved trade cooperation, within the rules and mechanisms of the WTO, could contribute to domestic, regional, and global efforts to reduce plastic pollution and transition to a more circular and environmentally sustainable global plastics economy.”
Efforts to create a more circular economy for plastic consumption have the potential to make major environmental impacts. Although efforts are still in the early stages, a structured conversation and statement on trade and environmental sustainability was backed by 49 WTO members. Informal discussions are expected to begin in 2021, indicating a fast timeline to begin reassessing global plastic consumption and its environmental impacts. The WTO’s ‘Open-ended Informal Dialogue’ hosted by China and Fiji received strong early support from Australia, Barbados, Canada, and Morocco, suggesting multiple countries’ interest in creating sustainable trade around plastic.
The Global Plastic Action Partnership — organized by the World Economic Forum — has advocated for a transformation of the global plastic industry. The aim is to move towards a circular model of plastic consumption, in which waste moves from disposal back to repurposing, which will require lots of transparency and global efforts to monitor the plastic industry. It is unclear how feasible this effort to change the global plastic will be.
The Global Plastic Action Partnership is in early stages of building and growing public-private partnerships to create tangible plastic pollution strategies. The partnership has developed a list of 10 calls to action, which it aims to tackle through it’s growing partnerships. Some of these actions include agreeing on plastics to be eliminated and preparing markets to phase those plastics out, making the recycled plastics market competitive economically, and stimulating consumer adoption of plastic reuse. World collaborative interest in creating global policy solutions for plastic action is crucial for global sustainability efforts.
Beyond this, there is potential to implement extended producer responsibility measures, which would reduce the burden of municipalities to financially and physically reckon with the build up of plastic waste management. Additionally, it would provide incentives for manufacturers to design more low impact and reusable products, rather than single-use plastic materials.
Actions to create a circular economy and minimize the effects of single-use plastic are essential to sustain our environment and global biodiversity. Only time will tell if global collaboration on minimizing plastic consumption will be able to overcome the years of plastic neglect and affect future environmental sustainability. Global alliances on this issue are providing hope that the single-use plastic problem can be solved.