Data Coronavirus and the environment

A plastic pandemic

In Europe, 2020-2021 was to mark the turning point in the fight against plastic waste, one of the most urgent problems of our century. Then came Covid-19, with a torrent of masks, gloves, and antiviral packaging. The risk of regression looms large.

Published on 17 June 2021 at 13:32

Resting on the chin or worn correctly, generously distributed in schools and workplaces, sold everywhere at a controlled price, face masks are now a constant in the lives of billions of people. A gust of wind or a mild distraction is enough to turn them into litter. During the first months of the pandemic, when masks were still unavailable to many, they were already a common sight among the waste that washes up on our shores.

But protective gear – not just masks, but also gloves, aprons, visors – is just one factor in the pandemic-driven spike in plastic consumption.

In addition to the use of light packaging, between online shopping and hygiene precautions, hospital waste is also increasing. Meanwhile, months of lockdown have hit the recycling supply chain hard, and the collapse in the price of oil needed to produce new plastics has done the rest.

2021 should have been the turning point for Europe. In July, the now famous directive restricting single-use plastics will come into effect as part of an ambitious transition strategy towards a circular economy. However, 2021 has turned out to be the year where humanity realised its dangerous addiction to plastics, especially disposable ones.

Masks everywhere

While nobody knows exactly how many personal protective devices have been used since the arrival of Covid-19, the turnover for face masks has multiplied by about 200 times, rising from 800 million to 166 billion dollars in one year .

A few months ago, scholars estimated that in 2020 around 129 billion masks would be used globally every month, in addition to other protective devices (gloves, visors, aprons) with lower, but still impressive figures. The persistence of the pandemic, and the increasing number of countries requiring the use of masks, have left the aforementioned estimate looking rather optimistic: more recent studies  speak of seven billion devices a day globally, and 210 billion every month. The European continent, as a whole, consumes about one billion a day. In terms of weight (a mask weighs about 3 grams), in the European Union alone, around 1600 tons of masks end up as waste every day.

According to this order of magnitude, we can estimate the weight of the masks used annually in the EU at about half a million tons: a figure corresponding to about 8 percent of the plastic that ended up in landfills in recent years (7.25 million tons in 2018). If all the masks ended up in landfills (in fact, a large proportion is incinerated) they would suffice, on their own, to bring us back to the levels of about 10 years ago.

Paradoxically, face masks are made largely of polypropylene, a recyclable material, but to avoid the risk of contagion they cannot be collected for recycling.

Furthermore, given their lightness and ubiquitous use, it is inevitable that some of the protective devices end up in the environment. According to a WWF report released during the first wave, if even just one percent of masks were accidentally dispersed in the environment, it would mean ten million tons per month polluting meadows, woods, streams, and seas. In fact, the estimates for littering, that is the fraction of waste dispersed, speak of 2 percent in the countries of the global North . In the European Union alone, we are therefore talking between 16 and 32 tons a day.

Already in the first months of 2020, many Pacific beaches were littered with masks brought in by the sea. Since then, the quantity has only increased. They generally tend to float, but heavier masks sink or remain suspended at all depths. Scientists have already observed sharks, turtles, marine mammals, and birds that have ingested them whole, while many other organisms are often victims of the elastic cords used to secure them to the face. Destined, like all plastics that end up in the sea, to fragment into microplastics (particularly microfibers), they could end up permeating the food chain at every level and soon become, according to some scientists , the number one source of garbage debris in the oceans. Some will end up in marine sediments, perhaps leaving a testimony of the pandemic for the next geological eras.

The new packaging boom

For years, packaging has provided the largest fraction of plastic waste, and in the European Union it absorbs as much as 40 percent of all plastic demand. This category of waste, despite the numerous initiatives to limit it, has grown inexorably in recent years. Following the economic crisis of 2008, plastic used in packaging (of which it is the second constituent material after paper and cardboard) grew by an average of 2 percent per year, exceeding 14 million tons in 2019.

Now, following the pandemic, packaging will further accelerate its run. Years of raising awareness against excessive packaging, especially in the food sector, have done nothing against the fear of contagion. And of all possible materials, plastic, perceived (more wrongly than rightly) as more "aseptic" and hygienic, was the favourite solution.

The greatest growth, however, will probably be driven by the incredible leap forward of online commerce. In the second quarter of 2020, write Vox , digital sales increased by 71 percent, and by 55 percent in the third quarter.

The annual growth rate of the packaging sector, according to the consultancy firm Markets and Markets, will stand at 5.5 percent globally, that is over 100 billion dollars more than in 2019. No surprise, hygienic and sanitary packaging and online shopping will drive the growth. It is difficult to say how much waste will be produced, but it is safe to bet that the figures will not be negligible.

Booming medical waste

As can be easily imagined, health sector waste has increased dramatically since the outbreak of the pandemic. In addition to hospital waste, domestic waste produced by people in quarantine also inflates the figures. In Wuhan, in the first months of 2020, sanitary waste grew six times over the previous year. European countries also saw a comparable increase in the following weeks. According to the aforementioned study, 70,000 tons of sanitary waste are currently produced throughout the European continent. For the European Union alone, with this order of magnitude, we get about 40,000 tons, six or seven times more than in pre-pandemic times.

Concentrated in certain facilities and disposed of or incinerated under controlled conditions, despite the staggering increase, the explosion in waste seems to be under control, at least in Europe. The same cannot be said of many countries in the southern hemisphere, with their already poor records for waste disposal. In many cases, the large amount of medical waste has led to its disposal in open landfills, with risks to public health and serious environmental consequences.

Recycling in crisis

While demand for plastics skyrocketed during the toughest months of the lockdown, much of the complex waste processing machine was practically at a standstill. On the other hand, the price of oil dropped to historic lows, making it extraordinarily profitable to produce virgin plastic. The situation for the recycling supply chain in Europe appeared so bad that Tom Emans, president of the Plastics Recyclers Europe industry association, said that without action at EU level the entire EU recycling industry was in danger of shutting down.

According to a Reuters  survey, global demand for recycled plastics fell by over 20 percent in the first half of 2020.

Pending the complete data on the entire period, we can get an idea of ​​the impact of the pandemic by looking at the data provided in the “Italy Recycling” report  by Fise Unicircular. Between March and May 2020, the document reads, 53 percent of companies and conglomerates involved in the waste supply chain reported reductions in separate collection by over 20 percent. Between May and August, the still steep decline was around -10 percent.

Fortunately, this aspect of the crisis turned out to be temporary, and the numbers returned to normal in the second half of the year.

Giving Covid the right weight

Despite the staggering numbers, it is still too early to say whether in absolute terms pandemic-related plastics will really impact plastics trends in the long term. The last decade has been characterised by major efforts in at least 127 countries around the world, including regulations, bans, and public awareness initiatives. These initiatives are significantly reducing the percentage of plastic destined for landfill or, worse still, for dispersal into the environment. Nonetheless, polymer production is increasing so rapidly that in absolute terms the numbers continue to grow, and by a lot. And plastic stays around for decades.

At this rate, it is estimated that by 2050 99 percent of seabird species will have ingested plastic, allowing it to enter all ecosystems on the planet.

The European Union, which has adopted an ambitious strategy for a transition to a circular economy, is perhaps the political entity that has done the most to solve the plastics problem. Despite the overall increase in waste produced, between 2006 and 2018 the percentage of plastic used by citizens that ends up in landfills dropped by 44 percent, from 12.9 to 7.25 million tons. Part of this success, however, has been achieved thanks to the export of recyclable material to other countries, where the same standards are not always guaranteed.

China, once the largest buyer of waste, closed its doors in 2017, and many other countries could follow suit. In addition to the ethical aspect, there is an amendment to the Basel Convention on waste which, since January of this year, makes the criteria for exports much more demanding. It is likely that this will significantly reduce the successes flaunted so far, and for this reason even more urgent action is required.

The legacy of the pandemic

Beyond the figures, the plastic from Covid-19 has made it clear that we are at a crossroads. On the one hand, pressures to reduce or dismantle anti-plastic regulations have multiplied during the emergency. In many cases the attempts have been successful. The Disposable Plastics Directive also initially risked being postponed or heavily watered down, but ultimately remained standing.

On the other hand,  many think that the Covid-19 experience can teach us to change the pace. According to a study published in Science of the Total Environment , the pandemic should push us to apply plastic containment strategies with even more conviction. Efforts, however, should concern the sector in all its phases, starting from design. New products should be designed from the offset to facilitate recycling and reuse. Plastics not directly derived from fossil fuels could be encouraged through research on bioplastics (which are not currently an option). Masks, gloves, and visors could also be made with these materials.

It is now clear that strategies for managing the waste cycle must become more flexible and be able to cope with unforeseen events on a global scale (not necessarily a pandemic).

Public awareness, researchers argue unanimously, is another fundamental aspect. However, there is often a tendency to place on consumers all the responsibilities that industry and politics do not want to take on. If it is true that the polymer industry is investing more than in the past in recycled plastic, it also continues to invest much more in virgin plastic, thanks to the ever-increasing demand.

"Consumers should prefer sustainable alternatives, and at the same time these must be sufficiently available, which is up to industries and can be promoted or imposed by governments", explains researcher Joana C. Prata of the Center for Environmental and Marine Studies of the University of Aveiro, Portugal.

In a world of rapid and global transformation, an event such as a pandemic has a lot to tell us, if we only listen.


The European strategy for plastics

In 2018 the European Commission presented the European strategy for plastics. The measures in the strategy included the improvement of the supply chain and the value chain of recycled plastics, the reduction of waste, especially at sea, and of single-use plastics, support for global and multilateral initiatives on plastics. The strategy set the goal of ensuring that by 2030 all plastic packaging would be recycled or reusable in the EU. In September 2018, the EU Parliament promoted the strategy by calling for the introduction of minimum requirements for recycled plastics to be included in European products, stringent quality standards, and legal requirements to reduce microplastics.

👉 Original article on OBC Transeuropa.

This article is a partnership with the European Data Journalism Network.


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