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28,000 Tons of Covid-19 Plastic Waste Now in World’s Oceans

Plastic bags floating in the ocean. Plastic waste related to the fight against Covid-19, including medical masks and shields, among many other items, are now showing up in the oceans of the world. Credit: Dronepicr /CC BY 3.0

A gigantic quantity of Covid-19 plastic waste, amounting to an astounding 28,000 tons of trash, has been dumped into the world’s oceans since the beginning of the pandemic, according to a recent study.

Masks, gloves, and other waste that has been produced en masse in the past year and a half have now ended up in the seas that cover our planet — amounting to so much that in a few years, they may begin circling around the North Pole.

Such huge quantities of protective materials have been produced since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic that plastic conservation efforts that had begun to show real progress before that time have been dealt a serious blow, according to the report, as detailed in Live Science.

Plastic waste problem had improved before pandemic, experts say

Before the pandemic hit, they say, the nations of the world had begun to see important improvements in the regulation of plastics and in their reduction around the globe.

But the necessity of having protective materials, including facemasks and plastic or rubber gloves, as well as disposable materials of nearly every other kind, has brought that effort back to the drawing board.

Now, experts say, more than two thousand double decker buses’ worth of waste is floating in the oceans, according to this week’s report in The Guardian.

The report said that researchers found 193 countries produced a total of 9.2 million tons (8.4 million metric tons) of plastic waste associated with the Covid-19 pandemic from March of 2020 to the middle of August of this year.

Most of the plastics, approximately 87.4%, were used by medical facilities, while just 7.6% resulted from individual use, the study said. Plastic packaging, along with test kits, comprised approximately 4.7% and 0.3% of the waste, respectively, according to the study, which was published on Monday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Using what they already knew about the operation of waste streams, the researchers created a model to extrapolate just how much of this plastic waste ended up in the oceans of the world after it was discarded. They state that, as of Aug. 23, 2021, approximately 28,550 tons (25,900 metric tons) of plastic waste generated during the pandemic —  some of it undoubtedly once contaminated with Covid-19 — was already in the oceans.

Developing countries dispose of trash in rivers

The Guardian reports that much of it had been taken there by 369 major rivers; some countries still dump trash directly into these waterways.

Over the course of the next three years, the study says, most of these plastics will find its way onto beaches or the bottom of the sea. Over 70% of it could even wash up on beaches by the end of 2021, it states.

The researchers believe that for this duration of time, the trash will be noticed mostly on the shorelines of nations that have allowed it to be carried out by its river.

However, looking forward, the Covid-19-related plastic waste may well end up in one of the infamous Pacific Garbage Patches, two large floating masses of debris that have formed in the gyres of currents in the world’s largest ocean, according to the model.

Other such patches are circling in the Atlantic and Indian Oceans as well. However, plastics that somehow make their way northward, toward the Arctic Circle, will be able to go no further and will sink down to the sea floor, the researchers believe, leading to the formation of what they call a “circumpolar plastic accumulation zone” by the year 2025.

The study authors declare that “at the end of this century, the model suggests that almost all the pandemic-associated plastics end up in either the seabed (28.8%) or beaches (70.5%), potentially hurting the benthic ecosystems,” those at the very bottom of the deepest oceans.

They go on to state that “The recent COVID-19 pandemic has led to an increased demand for single-use plastic, intensifying pressure on this already out-of-control problem.

“These findings highlight the hotspot rivers and watersheds that require special attention in plastic waste management.”

The authors call for improvements in the systems developing countries use to collect, treat, and dispose of all plastics. Ultimately, they must eliminate plastics in rivers and limit single-use plastics, employing sustainable alternatives.

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