The pandemic reignited demand for plastic packaging as well as boosted production of single-use items like masks, gloves and test kits in which plastic is a key component. That’s undone years of work by governments and environmentalists to try to wean consumers off single-use plastics and cut the poisonous emissions of urban incinerators.
By April, 50 tonnes of infectious waste were piling up each day in Thailand’s medical centres, which only had the capacity to effectively incinerate 43 tonnes, according to the Thailand Environment Institute. In Wuhan, the imbalance was even worse, with only 49 tonnes of capacity per day to deal with nearly five times the level of contaminated waste during the peak of infection. With lockdowns in many cities hampering recycling efforts for normal municipal waste, authorities often had to rely on already overstretched furnaces to keep garbage from piling up.
“Incineration might be an emergency solution to deal with the rapid increase in medical waste, but it’s not necessarily the best solution,” Agrawala said in an interview. “Air quality and public health consequences are certainly aspects which we need to look at carefully.”
The result is that in many countries, medical waste such as used masks is ending up in landfills as mixed waste, or simply being discarded to end up in the sea or wash up on beaches. OceansAsia said it has discovered a growing number of masks on the Soko Islands, a small cluster off the coast of Hong Kong, during its plastic pollution research.
Public concern triggered by the pandemic has prompted many big retailers to also reverse other sustainability efforts. Target and Trader Joe’s in the United States, are among those who are not allowing shoppers to bring reusable bags, while Starbucks and other cafes have suspended accepting customers’ reusable cups over fears of transmission.
The resurgence of disposable plastic is an urgent issue that governments need to include, as they plan a recovery from the economic effect of the virus to avoid wasting decades of progress in the global battle against plastic pollution, Agrawala said.
“The real environmental impact would be determined by how we emerge from the crisis,” he said. “If the virus is going to be part of our lives, we have to find longer term, more sustainable solutions.”