COVID-19 stay-at-home mandates have had unexpected positive and negative effects on the environment. Travel bands reduced beach waste and noise pollution, while remote working improved air quality because fewer cars were on the road. Social distancing and other public safety measures increased online shopping, which changed residential waste composition to include more take-out containers and shipping materials.
According to Dr. Kelly Francisco, environmental researcher, pandemic gear, such as masks, gloves, and disinfecting wipes, increased packaging and inadvertently upset efforts to reduce plastic pollution.
Within a 90-day period, the demand for N95 masks doubled. Additionally, the production of plastics-based pandemic gear was thrown into overdrive with the activation of Operation Warp Speed — a public–private partnership initiated by the United States government to facilitate and accelerate the development, manufacturing, and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines, therapeutics, and diagnostics. The U.S. Department of Defense estimated over 1 billion N95 masks will be produced in 2021 versus the pre-pandemic annual production of 50 million. COVID-19 triggered an estimated global use of 129 billion face masks and 65 billion gloves every month. This change infused more plastic products into the recycling program.
Still, recycling efforts of 46 percent of the country’s programs were paused to accommodate the increased waste production as more company employees worked form home.
This reality helped inform the efforts of Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley and Representative Alan Lowenthal (CA – 47), who introduced the Break Free from Plastic Pollution Act to Congress on Thursday, March 25.
“Many of us have recognized the plastic waste crisis for a while, but now we’re just as a nation coming to understand the severity of this crisis, and how broken our current waste and recycling system really is,” Rep. Lowenthal said. “Further, we are seeing more and more how plastic waste is a crisis. That’s not simply a solid waste issue. But it’s intimately tied to climate change and to environmental justice at the international human rights as the production and the pollution of plastics impacts public health, it impacts the environment, and it impacts certainly our climate.”
Challenges of COVID-19 worsened existing and exposed new issues within the waste management system. One such issue, said Francisco, is the lack of guidance to citizens on the proper disposal and recycling of pandemic gear. In many instances, these items are more difficult to recycle. The middle layer of surgical masks and many components of N95 masks are made of the plastic, polypropylene. Once released into the environment, the polypropylene in personal protection equipment (PPE) is persistent and does not readily break down.
Boater Chad Johnson said that he has seen masks floating on top of the water while fishing in various lakes since December 2020. Pandemic gear litter has increasingly been documented by photos or videos on various social media platforms and published in journal articles. This poor waste management contributes to serious environmental issues (pollution) and other health concerns.
When not properly disposed, collected, or managed, pandemic gear can be transported between land and water through surface run-off and animals that find shelter in waste. Many animals are the host of different diseases. For instance, the plague was transmitted by rats rummaging through solid waste. Waste also contains materials that can collect rainwater and attract mosquitos (think urban yellow fever), making waste management an urgent and important aspect to maintain the health of the public as we emerge out of this pandemic.