COVID-19 has Led to an Increase in Plastic Pollution

Lucy McIntire

At the beginning of the pandemic, possible “silver linings” were discovered: pollution lowered and smog cleared as factories shut down, and conservation of animals gained more support after it was suspected COVID-19 began in a wet-market. Also, with people working from home and driving very little, carbon dioxide emissions were lowered. However, they only fell about 6.4%, less than predicted, and at a rate that is unlikely to stay low now that the virus is beginning to be controlled. And, as beneficial as this slight decline in carbon emissions and other benefits are, they are accompanied by a greater issue — the sharp rise in plastic pollution.

There has been a sharp increase in use of PPE: mostly disposable masks and gloves to protect people from the COVID. However, when PPE finds their way into the sea, animals can eat them, mistaking them for prey, which can have perilous effects on their bodies. And, animals can get caught in the elastic in both masks and gloves. Worse, it is estimated 129 billion face masks and 65 billion gloves are used every month.

But there have also been several other negative environmental effects resulting from COVID-19. Oil prices have plummeted, encouraging companies to use it as a cheap packaging option (oil is an ingredient in plastic). Also, with people not visiting restaurants and instead opting to order in, the number of takeout boxes has skyrocketed, and many are not recyclable. Recycling is at a low because cities have found cutting the recycling budget is a way to save money in this difficult time.

WWF says changes need to be made, and they have several recommendations. Consumers need to focus on eliminating  products that are unnecessary, try to buy sustainable products and packaging, and encourage companies to become more transparent. Companies, in turn, need to work on finding sustainable ways to create their products, and the government needs to fund recycling because 63% of waste in the US ended up in landfills.