Covid-19 medical waste is making the global plastic problem even ...

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Covid-19 medical waste is making the global plastic problem even worse

A new study has pinpointed the likely path of pandemic-related plastic waste in our oceans

Senior reporter
In three to four years, a significant portion of ocean plastic debris is expected to make its way onto beaches or the seabed, with a smaller portion going into the open ocean.
BLUE FUTURE In three to four years, a significant portion of ocean plastic debris is expected to make its way onto beaches or the seabed, with a smaller portion going into the open ocean.
Image: 123RF/fabrikacrimea

An increase in demand for single-use plastics such as face masks, gloves and face shields as a result of Covid-19 is intensifying pressure on a burgeoning global plastic problem.

While many researchers suspect there will be a huge influx of mismanaged pandemic-related plastic waste, a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal is the first to project the magnitude and fate of it in oceans.

The study uses a newly developed ocean-plastic numerical model to quantify the impact of the pandemic on plastic discharge from land sources. 

The researchers found that more than eight million tons of pandemic-associated plastic waste have been generated globally, with more than 25,000 tons entering the global ocean.

Within three to four years, a significant portion of this debris is expected to make its way onto beaches or the seabed.

A smaller portion will go into the open ocean, eventually to be trapped in the centres of ocean basins or subtropical gyres, which can become rubbish patches, and a circumpolar plastic accumulation zone in the Arctic Ocean.

The researchers incorporated data from the start of the pandemic in 2020 to August 2021, finding that most global plastic waste entering the ocean is coming from Asia, with hospital waste representing the bulk of land discharge.

The biggest sources of excess waste were hospitals in areas already struggling with waste management before the pandemic.
Amina Schartup, study co-author

The study reveals the need for better management of medical waste in developing countries.

“When we started doing the maths, we were surprised to find that the amount of medical waste was substantially larger than the amount of waste from individuals, and a lot of it was coming from Asian countries, even though that’s not where most of the Covid-19 cases were,” said study co-author Amina Schartup.

“The biggest sources of excess waste were hospitals in areas already struggling with waste management before the pandemic; they just weren’t set up to handle a situation where you have more waste.”

The study highlights hotspot rivers and watersheds that require special attention in plastic-waste management.

The researchers found that most plastic waste from the pandemic is entering the ocean from rivers. Asian rivers account for 73% of the discharge of plastics and European rivers for 11%, with minor contributions from other continents.

While most of the pandemic-associated plastics are expected to settle on beaches and the sea floor, a smaller amount will likely end up circulating or settling in the Arctic Ocean, which study authors say appears to be a “dead end” for plastic debris due to ocean circulation patterns.

“There is a pretty consistent circulation pattern in the ocean and that’s why we can build models that replicate how the ocean moves — it’s just physical oceanography at this point,” said Schartup.

“We know that if waste is released from Asian rivers into the North Pacific Ocean, some of that debris will likely end up in the Arctic Ocean — a kind of circular ocean which can be a bit like an estuary, accumulating all kinds of things that get released from the continents.”

The model shows that about 80% of the plastic debris that transits into the Arctic Ocean will sink quickly and a circumpolar plastic accumulation zone is modelled to form by 2025.

The Arctic ecosystem is already considered particularly vulnerable due to the harsh environment and high sensitivity to climate change. The potential ecological impacts of exposure to accumulated Arctic plastics adds another layer of concern, said the researchers.

To combat the influx of plastic waste into the oceans, the researchers have called for better management of medical waste in epicentres, especially in developing countries. They also called for global public awareness of the environmental impact of personal protection equipment (PPE) and other plastic products, and the development of innovative technologies for better plastic waste collection, classification, treatment and recycling, and development of more environmentally friendly materials.

In a paper published in the SA Family Practice journal, titled “Lessons from COVID-19 in South Africa: Keeping our environment clean should be the first law of health”, authors Sarentha Chetty and Varsha Bangalee said “in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, the links between poor hygiene, unclean environments and human health cannot be over-emphasised, particularly in SA, with its high incidence of infectious diseases and overburdened health system.

“One very controllable factor that is often overlooked is the poor disposal of litter, and waste management and its adverse effects on public health.

“Poor disposal of single-use masks, sanitisers and gloves, among other protective equipment, has resulted in a surge of medical wastes in the environment.

“This waste, with other litter, has been finding its way to shorelines and landfills, where it is contaminating the soil and water, and adding to an already polluted environment.

“The impact of this amount of waste is far-reaching and will affect plant, marine and animal ecosystems for years to come. The use of face masks is being advocated in a number of countries.

“Several countries have recognised this risk and have adopted methods to mitigate the spread of the virus, which include special public bins and waste-disposal procedures. This is something that South Africa should investigate and provide more public guidance.”

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