Right from the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, the world literally changed – in more ways than we could have ever imagined. Perhaps the most evident change is the switch from real to virtual existence. While most people used to report to work nearly daily, the pandemic forced us to do most of our work from home. The same is true with schools, churches, personal businesses, and the like. And the overall effect of this was a change in our consumption patterns. 

Aside from the viral pandemic, the world has to simultaneously grapple with the plastic pandemic. Plastic waste is indeed a disease that has penetrated every nook and cranny across the globe. And Covid-19 made plastic pollution skyrocket. We herein look into how that happened.

1. Covid-19 ignited a crazy rush for plastic

With social distancing directives from health authorities, many restaurants had to stop accommodating customers within their premises. Customers had to strictly order takeaways. For a typical meal, say lunch, every customer walks away with 2 plastic food containers, plastic bottled water, a plastic spoon, a plastic fork, and a polythene plastic bag to carry all that stuff.

Remember that all the above-mentioned are single-use plastic products. You only use them once and throw them into the garbage bins or pits. Without further calculations, picture in your mind how much plastic waste is generated every day.

Many people also became more conscious of their health. Preference for bottled water grew in lieu of tap water. That means a further addition to the already humongous plastic waste burden.

Online shopping likewise increased to levels never witnessed before. Most of those food and household items supplied to homes had to be wrapped – and it is a fact that such goods are wrapped and carried in plastic bags. 

To add salt to injury, millions of people all of a sudden realized that it was important to carry hand sanitizers with them wherever they go. A large percentage of sanitizers are definitely packed in plastic bottles. Again, the bottles have to be small to be more portable. That’s another big blow on the efforts to curb plastic pollution.

Yet another plastic product whose demand has spiked up with the pandemic is face shields. To be honest, a typical plastic face shield won’t last more than 1 or 2 weeks before it is trashed.

2. Hospitals generated a humongous amount of medical plastic waste  

When the population is sick, hospitals become the city of refuge. We witnessed health centers overflowing with Covid-19 patients. A great example is the city of Wuhan where the virus spread began. It was reported that hospitals would produce 240 tons of plastic waste on a daily basis. The waste comprised mostly single-use facemasks, gloves, and gowns. This is a 600% increase from the amount of waste produced during normal operations. 

Extrapolate this to visualize the amount of medical plastic waste generated in other cities and countries, especially those most hit by the virus. 

3. Manufacturing new plastic became way cheaper than recycled plastic

As more and more countries continued to enforce lockdowns, the demand for oil and oil products like petrol and diesel plummeted to the lowest of all time. Many people no longer fueled their cars. Even public service vehicles stalled their operations. 

Thus oil prices went down. And this was a big relief to plastic manufacturers. The manufacture of a great range of plastic products uses fossil fuels. With reduced raw material prices, production costs greatly decreased – meaning lucrative profits for the companies.

In such a scenario, which sober company would consider recycling plastic? Remember, even with normal oil prices, making products from recycled plastic is over 90% more expensive than making new plastic from scratch.  

For the mere fact that companies basically exist for profits, recycling is the last option most companies would consider. Plastic waste will therefore continue piling as more plastic is manufactured. 

What can be done to reduce plastic waste during the coronavirus pandemic?

It would certainly not be wise to tell people not to wear face shields, gloves, gowns, and other personal protective equipment. These are important for prevention purposes. Perhaps the best advice would be to “avoid panic”.

You see, panic led the public to overbuy food and household supplies. Supermarket shelves were wiped off in a matter of days. All this was not necessary. If people approached the Covid-19 pandemic a bit more calmly, plastic waste would not have been as much as it is now. Therefore, the public needs to reprogram their mind and do what is necessary to reduce plastic pollution – say no to bottled water, shun single-use plastic products, recycle and upcycle plastic, cook and eat at home, and manage plastic wastes appropriately.