How COVID-19 Has Crushed Waste Depletion Efforts

Saving the environment has been put on the back burner with fears of the virus pushing people back to single-use plastic and disposable items.
Tuesday 29 September 2020
An influx of waste from this virus was only inevitable, we must learn how to cope with it. Photo: AFP

At a time when everyone was becoming more aware of the mountains of trash and plastic that plague dump sites and nature, the virus struck, not only making us sick and killing people but also wreaking havoc on environmental movements. 

COVID-19 has turned the world upon itself, sending economies into disarray, hospitals into overload and filling our planet with more plastic than ever before. In trying to save ourselves, we have condemned the environment to waste hell with the reuptake in single-use plastics as well as other hygiene barriers. 


First-year students wearing masks as a preventive measure against the coronavirus during a commencement ceremony at Wuhan University. Photo: STR/AFP


Throwaway face masks or face shields are scattered everywhere and they’re even washing up on the shores of Hong Kong’s beaches. All manner of gloves are scattered aplenty along roadsides and everything is now separated by innumerable layers of plastic or shrink-wrap. 


Asia, the world’s garbage dump 

Before the virus had even hit China, waste management was a hot topic in the news. The country had been rejecting large amounts of recycling waste coming in from developed nations, only accepting 99.5% of pure recycled plastic scrap. 

This threw the entire industry into chaos because until then China had been taking in around 45% of the world’s plastic. Countries scrambled to find other buyers and deal with the tonnes of rejected waste. 


A block of compressed plastic bottles is seen at a plastic waste centre on the outskirts of Beijing in 2018, just a small glimpse at the larger picture of China’s waste problem. Photo: Fred DUFOUR/AFP


A majority of this trash found itself way over to Southeast Asia, where many countries were already importing plastics from the same nations, but not at the same level China was. From here, the plastic typically ended up in the ocean with nowhere else to go and no proper recycling systems that worked. 

Just before the Movement Control Order put Malaysia in lockdown, Yeo Bee Yin the former Minister of Energy, Science, Technology, Environment and Climate Change had returned 150 containers of 3,737 metric tonnes of illegally imported plastic waste to where they came from. 


Safety Over Environment 

These days, it’s all about protection, not just in the hospital but in our everyday lives. Masks, visors/screens, gloves and sanitisers have all become house essentials. These products, especially in the beginning, saw a high influx in sales and people went through them like tissues during a cold. 

There were mask shortages in China early on in the days when the virus first emerged in Wuhan that even electrical companies has to step up in producing the simple masks. 


Gary Stokes, founder of the environmental group Oceans Asia, poses with discarded face masks he found on a beach in Hong Kong. Photo: Anthony WALLACE/AFP


There were no reusable options in the beginning either but over time, due to shortages as well as eco-conscious people, fabric masks began popping up all over the place. Although high-in-demand, reusable masks still have not taken over single-use throwaway masks and gloves along with sanitisers due to them being higher in price and they are less convenient should you forget to bring them along with you. 


The Excess 

It’s not just the essentials that have been increasingly discarded as waste. Every bit counts, from single-use aprons at hairdressers who wear full Personal Protective Equipment to United Nations recommendations that airline food be distributed in blister packs to the bubble tents that allow some relatives to visit elderly and sick loved ones, touching them through a transparent plastic film, it’s more than the small items. In the end, they build up to become an even bigger waste problem. 


Two workers in India attempting to organise medical waste. Photo: AFP


Many places have lifted their single-use plastic bans. California laid its green credentials aside for two months and in the early months of lockdowns in countries like Malaysia and Saudi Arabia, many markets enforced wear-and-throw gloves while customers did their shopping so as decrease the chances of bringing the virus home. 

Because of the virus, single-use plastic has also found a rebirth. In March, the United States Plastic Industry Association urged the public that the activities they considered essential during the lockdown are as important as the usage of single-use plastics, which make a difference between life and death. However, wrapping things in plastic doesn’t necessarily guarantee safety from the virus. The World Health Organisation has mentioned that washing hands is as effective as wearing gloves.

Gloves themselves come in many various kinds, from latex to nitrile, and most of them are not biodegradable. Latex, although made from natural rubber, has chemicals mixed in to maintain its structure and thus degrades at a much slower rate. 


A vendor holds liquor bottles to give to customers at his shop. He has covered his shop with plastic sheets as a preventive measure. Photo: NOAH SEELAM/AFP


With people not being able to venture out of their homes and the convenience of ordering in rather than cooking at home, an increase in people ordering takeaway food has resulted in takeaway packaging being used and disposed of more than before. This is apparent in China and Southeast Asia. According to an OpinionWay-Sodastream poll, 66% of French people say they prefer to get packaged food right now.

Indonesia is reported to generate over 6.8 million tonnes of plastic waste every year with a 5% increase annually, and because of COVID-19, there is little doubt that that number will increase. The Thailand Environment Institute reported that Bangkok’s daily average amount of plastic waste surged from 2,120 tonnes per day in 2019 to approximately 3,440 tonnes per day between January and April 2020 alone.


Medical Waste 


An employee moves waste from hospitals that treat patients with the-19 novel coronavirus to a bin at a trash disposal facility in Bangkok. Photo by Lillian SUWANRUMPHA/AFP


The day-to-day aside, another industry that has had to manage plastic waste is the medical sector. With hospitals filled to the brim with an overwhelming number of virus patients, medical waste has been piling alongside it as well. Xin Hua Net found that Wuhan “experienced a massive increase of medical waste from between 40 and 50 tonnes a day before the outbreak to about 247 tonnes on 1 March.” China had to build a special medical waste plant to manage this massive increase. 

In March, the Malay Mail reported that the Environment and Water Minister Datuk Tuan Ibrahim Tuan Man made a statement about how the amount of clinical waste generated in Malaysia increased by 27% in that month compared to a 17% rise in February following the COVID-19 outbreak. Managing medical waste takes great care, and typically it must be sterilised with steam, chemically disinfected or incinerated. Not every country is managing its waste properly due to the high number of cases. 


Medical waste is removed from St Basil’s Home for the Aged in Melbourne. Photo: William WEST/AFP


The Effect 

Environmentalists already had their heads in their hands trying to push for reforms and plastic bans before the virus. Now, they are even more pessimistic about the situation. This massive glut in plastic use from masks alone, will clog up the world’s oceans, rivers, and our own backyards for the next 500 years, thanks to the absurdly long life-span of plastic. 

According to Ocean Conservancy, an ocean clean-up organisation, “Every year, 8 million metric tonnes of plastics enter our ocean on top of the estimated 150 million metric tonnes that currently circulate our marine environments.” With COVID-19 this will no doubt increase.


So much of our plastic ends up in the ocean, choking wildlife and clogging the rivers. Photo: AFP


Many countries have reacted to the uptake in waste in different ways. Some European countries like Spain have kept recycling centres open even though recycling numbers are dropping while places like the United States and Canada have only recently looked into keeping these centres open. Malaysia, like other Southeast Asian countries, is relying on local governments to handle waste management. 


The plastic numbers in the Atlantic ocean. Photo: AFP


With a large amount of waste piling up, especially hazardous waste from hospitals, some countries are resorting to incineration and landfills. Unfortunately, burning rubbish will only add to the thinning ozone layer and thus we are stuck in a Catch 22 – by eliminating one problem, we are adding to the other. 

Managing waste on a large scale may be up to the governing authorities, but at home we can all work to doing our own part in making sure that COVID-19 does not completely destroy all the efforts made previously, towards a plastic-free future. 


A face mask lies on the ground in the Son Gotleu neighbourhood in Palma de Mallorca looking lonely. Photo: JAIME REINA/AFP


On To The Future 

In caring for our health, we must not lose sight of Mother Nature and earth in the process. While an increase in these plastic items will flood our societies we must still strive to find ways to take care of the rubbish we create because it won’t just disappear when it goes in the bin. Find ways to stay safe and help make sure that we’re not adding to the trash filling whale’s stomach in the ocean. 

  • Be mindful of proper household waste management.
  • Sort through what is recyclable and what isn’t, clean what can be recycled and if possible disinfect it before it goes out to the rubbish.
  • Cook more meals at home. Plastic isn’t always safe. Washing all your produce at home properly can help keep you safe just as well.
  • Make or get a three-layered fabric mask. If you can afford UnderArmour’s mask, it is a solid investment.