Why the pandemic is fuelling Asia's plastic crisis

Plastic Atlas

As countries around the world scramble to contain the deadly coronavirus, plastic detritus from disposable face masks, medical equipment, and takeaway boxes is snowballing in the Asian region. Experts explain how the pandemic is exacerbating the plastic waste deluge, and what consumers and governments can do to address the situation.

"Mabini is a famous dive destination in the Philippines, but its tourism-dependent population has suffered heavily due to the lockdown that prevented even locals from engaging in water activities. When the lockdown eased, I went beneath the waves again and for the first time encountered a facemask on a bed of seagrass."

More than a year into the coronavirus pandemic, the world has witnessed a temporary improvement in air quality, largely due to a slowdown in industrial activity. Meanwhile, the plastic waste crisis has plunged further into the abyss. Mountains of plastic face masks, personal protective equipment (PPE), and food trays now pile up in landfills, as countries race to produce products to combat the global health crisis and changes in lifestyle it has entailed, prioritising disposable materials that are often perceived as more hygienic.

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How serious was the plastic crisis before COVID-19?

Plastics derived from fossil fuels have proliferated in the increasingly globalised consumer society that has developed since World War II, with production ballooning from 2.3 million tonnes in 1950 to 448 million tonnes worldwide in 2015, according to a 2017 study in Science Advances.  The research estimated that plastic production would double by 2050. 

At least 10 million tons of plastics are already dumped in oceans each year, making up 80 percent  of all marine debris, according to the International Union for Conservation Nature. Moreover, land and marine plastic pollution pose an imminent threat to the food chain, with a host of alarming consequences for ecosystems, marine wildlife, and human health.

In Asia, the problem is particularly serious, as the region generates an estimated 121 million tonnes of plastic waste each year. It is also the major importer of the world’s plastic waste – in 2016, as much as 74 percent of global plastic waste was imported by countries and regions in Asia, a study published in Waste Management found. China imported 64% of the world’s plastic waste in 2017, but announced it would ban such practices the same year, resulting in the shifting of global plastic waste imports to Southeast Asia.

Incineration of plastic waste contaminates the air with toxic substances, while discarded plastics in oceans are predicted to outnumber fish by 2050.

Setback to years of work to reduce plastic use

The new wave of pandemic-related single-use plastics has partly reversed  the hard work by both consumers and governments in Asia to mitigate the plastic crisis, noted Von Hernandez, Global Coordinator, at Break Free From Plastic, a green NGO based in the Philippines.

“Before COVID-19, avoiding single-use plastic was becoming the norm,” he said. “Many governments had started instituting this, and phased out certain disposable products. But when the pandemic started, and scientists were still trying to determine how the virus was transmitted, the industry was quick to capitalise on that and start spreading the message that disposable plastics can save lives.”

Southeast Asia might be even harder hit, Hernandez warned, as many of its communities live in congested spaces. “People burn a lot of plastics, and subject themselves to health impacts from that. These materials also contaminate the soil and water.”

Large-scale impact of the pandemic on plastic pollution

Given the highly contagious nature of COVID-19 and asymptomatic cases, countries have sought to quickly scale up PPE production. As a consequence, each day worldwide, the planet now faces the discarding of an estimated 3.4 billion single-use face masks, at least partially made of plastics.

With the size of China’s population, research published online in scientific journal Heliyon (February 2021) estimated the country could be generating nearly 702 million discarded face masks per day and may have produced 108 million tonnes of plastic waste in 2020, a jump from around 60 million tonnes annually before COVID-19.  The figures from the country indicate that in February and March 2020, over 240 tons of medical waste, including a large proportion of plastics, were generated daily in Wuhan, where the first major coronavirus outbreak occurred, compared with 40 tons per day prior to this, according to a report from China’s state media CGTN.

In Thailand, plastic waste jumped from 5,500 tonnes per day before the pandemic to 6,300 tonnes as of mid-May 2020. During Singapore’s circuit-breaker lockdown from April to June 2020, an extra 1,334 tonnes of plastic waste – enough to fill 92 double-decker buses – were produced from takeaway and delivered meals. India reportedly experienced  a 47 percent rise in single-use plastics in Mumbai, Bengaluru, Delhi, and Pune, while South Korea reported a 15.6 percent  rise in plastic waste in the first half of 2020, compared with the same period the previous year. Malaysia’s medical waste, including PPE, gloves, and swab test tools, surged 27 percent in March 2020 month on month, followed by a 31.5 percent increase in April and 24.6 percent climb in May.

With the pandemic showing few signs of abating, to date, the demand for such products is expected to continue, while the global vaccination rollout has brought another huge issue:  plastic syringes. This is further compounded by a pandemic-induced global slowdown in recycling plastics and other products, leading to an increase of waste being disposed in landfills, a World Bank Group report noted.

The myth of “more hygienic” plastic-made PPE

The leap in plastic consumption has also continued despite studies showing that COVID-19 stayed longer on plastics than other materials such as paper. In Hong Kong, residents have thrown away an estimated two billion disposable masks made partly of plastics since the pandemic began, according to a 2020 survey by Greeners Action, a local NGO.  Over 90 percent of respondents said they believed these masks provided more protection than reusable ones.

Angus Ho, Executive Director of Greeners Action, explained: “Many people think disposable masks offer a higher level of protection and are more hygienic. They don’t realise that Hong Kong and other cities have already launched many types of reusable masks that might have the same level of protection.”

While research on the effectiveness of different non-plastic materials is on-going, masks made with breathable fabric, such as cotton, have been recommended by health authorities around the world.

Hernandez, of Break Free From Plastic, added that people tried to justify their need for more disposable plastics out of fear of infection. He said this had “resulted in a spike” in demand for such products. “But people are realising now that you can also wear reusable masks, and some PPE can be recycled and reused safely. Scientists are aware that disposable plastics are not inherently safer than reusables.”

This view was also reflected in a post from the World Health Organisation in 2020 that called for members of the public without a high risk of infection to wear fabric masks. It also punctured the myth of wearing plastic gloves to prevent coronavirus infection – these gloves can spread germs to others, with washing and sanitising hands recommended instead.

Governments hold the key to mitigation

According to Satyarupa Shekhar, Break Free From Plastic’s Asia-Pacific Coordinator, governments need to encourage the production and consumption of reusable face masks more.

“After months of lockdown in India, many textile factories and places that make garments were diverted to making disposable masks,” she said. “These are industries with rich experience of producing fabric products, so the government is actually in a great position to encourage reusables, rather than switching these industries to make plastic COVID kits.”

The Hong Kong, Singapore and Japanese governments all distributed reusable masks to their citizens in 2020.  

While many governments in Asia have, or are looking to, introduce plastic bans, a few have postponed their measures in light of the COVID-19 crisis. For others, the mountains of pandemic-induced plastics have outweighed the benefits of new bans. In the Philippines’ most populous highly urbanised area, Quezon City, a ban on single-use plastics due to start in July 2020 was postponed to March 2021. In Thailand, the gains from the government’s ban on plastic bags was negated by the huge amount of plastics resulting from lockdowns.

Shekhar said that in some Indian cities, such as  Chennai, insufficient monitoring had led to the use of banned plastic bags. “It requires constant monitoring and logging of penalties on traders and shops that are still using single-use plastics.”

While consumers can educate themselves on the use of reusable masks, the onus is still on governments to improve waste management, especially those concerning face masks, gloves, and medical waste.

In addition to the pandemic-induced suspension of recycling activities, countries and regions are witnessing an increased amount of mixed waste from households, a fall in collection services and landfill operations, as well as increased amount of infectious waste from healthcare facilities, according to the United Nations

The UN report showed many governments to be “inadequate” in managing healthcare waste even before the pandemic, and suggested that authorities map sources of waste generation, avoid interruptions to waste management services, and make contingency and long-term action plans to enhance their work in segregating, storing, transporting, treating, and disposing waste during COVID-19.

For masks, gowns, and eye-protection gear, governments should work on thorough decontamination and sterilisation if they are to be reused, according to WHO’s recommendations.

Plastic Atlas Asia Edition features the long-term implications of COVID-19 on plastic consumption and wastage. You can also find out more from the expert interviews in our upcoming podcasts. Stay tuned!


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