The Environmental Impact From COVID-19 Product Waste


“Even if you never have the chance to see or touch the ocean, the ocean touches you with every breath you take, every drop of water you drink, every bite you consume. Everyone, everywhere is inextricably connected to and utterly dependent upon the existence of the sea.” 


~Dr. Sylvia Earle, American marine biologist, oceanographer, and research scientist


By Liz Quinn


As COVID-19 moves from pandemic to endemic status, the environmental toll it has taken globally is its own crisis in the making. Although the most recent variants are more contagious, they appear, so far, to be less lethal than previous ones such as Delta. 


That said, policies that remain in place, as well as a continued push for worldwide vaccination, merit a look at the “side effects” of the waste created in efforts to protect people from the virus.


On any given day at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, your average trip to the grocery store would no doubt include the sight of multiple masks and gloves strewn about the parking lot. 


A neighborhood walk could become a “Where’s Waldo”-esque event with used blue and white medical masks serving as the sad, unsanitary version of the jovial-striped hat. 


In a way, it’s hard to reconcile the idea that your neighbors could be at once intimately concerned about their personal environment that they would wear gloves to the store, and simultaneously reckless as to carelessly toss them on the ground after the protective gear had served its purpose for them.


AVFCA Microplastics


Researchers from Nanjing University in China, and Scripps Institution of Oceanography in California, focused on the plastic waste from COVID-19, estimating that 8.4 million tons of plastic waste had been generated globally from the beginning of the pandemic. 


Of that, approximately 25,900 tons have leaked into our oceans. It’s worth noting the report was submitted in June 2021. The waste calculation covered that particular timespan; nothing since. 


While all countries have generated (and continue to generate) some amount of pandemic-related plastic waste, the vast majority comes from Asian rivers, which the researchers estimate accounts for 73% of the world’s pandemic plastic waste


Individual use of personal protective equipment (PPE) certainly impacts the environment, especially when improperly disposed of, but the Nanjing researchers estimated that 87% of the plastic waste came from hospitals rather than individuals


Based on their modeling, the scientists concluded that by the end of the century, over 99% of the pandemic-associated plastics will end up on either the seabed or on beaches.


Scientists have growing concerns regarding microplastics—both the known hormonal effects of estrogenic mimicking—a class of endocrine disruptors, and the yet-unknown effects of the wide extent of contamination that has now extended to human placentas. 


From Northeastern Global News, “Microplastics are everywhere, but their dangers largely remain a mystery, researchers say”:


“Many of these contaminants are bioactive in the human body,” said environmental chemist and Northeastern professor Zhenyu Tian. “They have a harmful effect on the human body if the concentration is high enough.” 


Such harms include effects of chemical additives like bisphenol A (BPA) that can impact brains and especially young children and babies.


AVFCA Dead Fish COVID Waste

Macroplastics and Wildlife

Aside from the concern about microplastics, a term you might not know is macroplastics. Defined as plastic items at least 5 mm in diameter, the term is now relevant to environmental COVID-19 discussions, given the size of the pandemic waste items being generated. 


A Netherlands-based study in spring 2021 found direct wildlife impact of such macroplastic waste, citing the first cases of fish being trapped in latex gloves and birds whose wings were entangled in face mask straps


They also found birds using medical waste materials like masks in their nest building. A dead penguin in Brazil was found with a face mask in its stomach—the first formally recorded instance of marine death due to face mask ingestion. 


These are the impacts observed in formal studies; there are undoubtedly many more undocumented wildlife issues from COVID-19 waste.


In Addition to Plastics

Broader than plastics, in February 2022, the World Health Organization (WHO) released a report of its analysis of waste created by COVID-19 health care measures. 


The international team of researchers studied data of worldwide use of everything medically COVID-19-related, from personal protective equipment, such as masks and gloves, to syringes, test kits, and packaging materials. The results were alarming. 


Per the sudden recommendation to mask, after the initial advice against it, the WHO report estimated 3.4 billion disposable masks were thrown away every day in 2020. Of these, experts believe approximately 1.6 billion masks went into oceans that year alone.


Some 87,000 tonnes of PPE were distributed worldwide from 2020 to November 2021. The WHO estimates all of these materials were used and disposed of, signaling waste to the tune of nearly 192 million pounds, the equivalent of 261 jumbo jets, was generated during this time period alone.


While the issue of proper disposal of medical waste is a global one, wealthier nations tend to have better medical disposal systems in place, even before the pandemic, whereas poorer nations tend to struggle with such disposal. 


In India and Liberia, for example, much of their medical refuse is burned in open pits or poorly controlled incinerators where the resulting emissions and ash can be hazardous. 


“Likely human carcinogens” such as dioxins and furans are released in the emissions; the levels of which can be hundreds of times those safely recommended by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) or European Union (EU) standards for the atmosphere. 


This massive amount of contamination can affect not just those who work or live nearby, but the food chain itself. Levels up to 13 times higher than EU limits of some of these toxins have been found in chicken eggs located near medical waste incinerators, posing a serious hazard to anyone eating the eggs.


As a result of the WHO study and groups such as Health Care Without Harm (HCWH), some countries are implementing ways to increase medical recycling and provide for safer disposal of medical waste. 


Without the needle, all vaccination waste, including vials and packaging, is completely recyclable,” says Ruth Stringer of HCWH. 


Considering that the first 8 billion COVID-19 vaccines administered worldwide yielded over 317 million pounds of waste (as of October 2022, it was over 12.7 billion doses throughout 184 countries), any help in this area is welcome. 


Between the quickly-waning efficacy of the latest vaccines against the latest variants, extensive worldwide infection to this point, and the potential waste generated from shipping vaccines globally, a human and environmental cost-benefit analysis is called for.


If digesting this information about your environment leaves you feeling defeated, it’s no wonder. Unless you’re a board member of a hospital or a higher-up at the WHO, you may feel there’s little you can do to make an impact. But rest assured, there’s always a step you can take, or move you can make to influence positive change.


Your Personal Protective Equipment Choices

Should masks become mandatory again, or if you make the choice to wear one on your own, there are reusable options. Silicone masks, which are challenging to breathe through, should be avoided, as they pose health risks, containing high levels of pollutants, including lead, antimony, and copper.


If you prefer a breathable option, a silver mask may be right for you. Studies have shown that silver can be an effective, naturally antimicrobial material. Although such masks are not N95-caliber, studies indicate silver may naturally offer some degree of protection from viruses like SARS-COV-2.


Initially, this type of mask is substantially more costly, but if you are someone who needs to wear a mask for long stretches, or for a child who might be required to be in one for a full school day, they last a very long time and require little care.


If your local school district attempts to reinstate mask mandates, consider fighting for choice. In January 2022, Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) implemented requirements that all students wear non-cloth masks every day. 


Given that most families had little knowledge of reusable options, the vast majority of kids wore disposable masks with plastic components. As the country’s second-largest school district, this one requirement meant that one mask was thrown away every day by over 600,000 students, for at least 100 days of instruction. 


If students used a new mask daily, as requested, the waste added up to 60 million masks from a single policy decision from one school district.


If you choose to wear disposable masks, before throwing away, cut or rip off the straps. Much like clipping or ripping the plastic ring holders for six packs of aluminum cans, this action will help prevent wildlife from getting caught in used masks.


As for gloves, unless you’re dealing with a special situation, in most cases, it’s best to forgo them. Seeing as gloves are made solely from plastic, they take longer than masks to biodegrade, and SARS-COV-2 is mainly transmitted through airborne particles. Sticking to basic handwashing should be sufficient.


When it comes to the tragic tons of plastic pandemic waste that have already made their way to our oceans, there are organizations working hard to help clean and clear plastics from the water. The Ocean Cleanup, for example, focuses on not just the ocean, but the rivers whose waterways deliver so much plastic pollution to the sea. 


With sensible use of protective gear, and taking steps to mitigate further waste, efforts to clean up existing waste, as well as fighting for reasonable policies that make sense for people and the environment, your choices and actions can and will make a difference.




Published on February 23, 2023


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