Coronavirus lockdowns around the globe have led to a dramatic 5% drop in greenhouse gas emissions, but not all measures to contain the pandemic have had a positive impact on the environment with UN reports showing a surge in global plastic pollution.
Across the globe, streets, beaches and oceans have been hit by a tidal wave of Covid-19 waste including plastic face masks, gloves, hand sanitizer bottles and food packaging.
“Plastic pollution was already one of the greatest threats to our planet before the coronavirus outbreak,” said Pamela Coke-Hamilton, the UN’s director of international trade. “The sudden boom in the daily use of certain products to keep people safe and stop the disease is making things much worse.”
In the UK, Government directives have seen the 5p plastic bag charge waived for food deliveries, and a prospective ban on straws, stirrers and cotton-bud sticks that was just weeks away from being introduced has been postponed.
Global sales of disposable face masks alone have skyrocketed from an estimated $800 million in 2019 to $166 billion in 2020, according to business consulting firm Grand View Research.
Social distancing has also led to a flood of products delivered daily to homes, wrapped in a plethora of packaging, as people turn to online shopping and takeout services. The ensuing plastic waste has been of a significant magnitude, with 75% of the global total expected to end up in landfills or the oceans. The negative spillover effects of plastic waste on fisheries, tourism and maritime transport, already add up to an estimated $40 billion each year, and with the pandemic far from over that number could be set to rise even higher.