In the wake of the COVID-19 global pandemic, single-use plastics are our savior. They serve many purposes, from surgical masks and body bags to clam-shell containers and trash bags. But though these single-use plastics play a significant role in our health and safety, they’re steadily contributing to an ever-present epidemic: the world’s plastic problem. Below, we explore how our worsening pandemic situation contributes to our mountain of plastic and medical waste.

The Current State of Affairs

Some believe that COVID-19 is the beginning of our plastic problem, when, in fact, it’s only a recent contributor. The world has been drowning in plastic since the 1990s. It’s estimated that we’ve produced 8.3 billion tons of plastic since the 1950s, sifted out to be approximately 300 million tons of plastic waste every year. The problem is, 60 percent of that plastic ends up in a landfill.

Throughout the decades plastic waste production began to skyrocket, thanks to companies boosting single-use plastic production due to their cheapness. This changed how we use and dispose of plastic. Now, half of all plastic produced is designed to be used only once and thrown away (think water bottles, grocery bags, and shampoo bottles). A catalyst to our trash problem began in 2018 when China banned the import of 24 different kinds of waste materials, forcing many countries, including America, to rethink how we disposed of waste.

Yet despite our efforts to reduce, reuse, and recycle, much of our plastic never disappears. Most of it breaks down into smaller pieces, which are called microplastics. And these bits of plastic find their way back into the world; in the air, devoured by ocean life, and ultimately back onto our plates as food.

The Pandemic’s Assistance

In some ways, the pandemic has single-handedly been responsible for nature’s healing process. Emissions and greenhouse gases are fewer, water is less polluted and flowing clearer, and air quality is improving due to the stay-at-home orders. Because of the mandates and general fear of not being able to properly social distance, the number of cars on the road has reduced, and large factories have slowed down their production.

On the opposite end, the stay-at-home orders are partly responsible for increasing the world’s single-use plastic consumption. Thailand’s Environment Institute backs up this claim, citing the spike in-home deliveries of food as a big reason.

You see, to keep up with revenue despite mandated closures, restaurants began offering to-go options. And though the shift to take out only is convenient for many and provides some semblance of normalcy during the pandemic, it is also creating plastic waste through individually wrapped cutlery, clam-shell containers, cups, and plastic bags. Before the pandemic, many cities and states had begun to band single-use bags in favor of reusable and paper bags. Now, those initiatives have waned, as it’s believed the virus can cling to reusable bags and cups.

But perhaps the most significant contributor to the single-use plastic waste problem is the Personal Protective Equipment primarily worn by frontline health workers and the disposable masks and latex gloves worn by the public.

Enforced to only wear once and discard for our safety, the world takes this request literally; disposing of plastic wherever they can, resulting in masks and gloves piling up in front of hospitals, washing up on beaches, making their way into sewers, and getting left abandoned in the streets. According to the World Wildlife Foundation (WWF), if even 1 percent of the masks we wear are improperly disposed of and dispersed in nature, this would result in 10 million masks per month ending up in the environment.

The way we dispose of our plastic and medical waste isn’t working, and in our efforts to rise out of the pandemic, we’re descending further into a waste epidemic.

In our efforts to rise out of the pandemic, we’re descending further into a plastic waste epidemic. Although there isn’t enough data to put a finite number on the plastic waste generated by the virus, early numbers give a snapshot of what we already fear. The South China Morning Post reported that at the height of Wuhan, China’s battle with the virus, they produced 240 tons of medical waste a day. For the U.S., it’s predicted that because of COVID-19, we could create a whole year’s worth of medical waste in two months.

The pandemic has affected our waste management efforts and, our recycling efforts are beginning to crash. With the virus raging on, even standard recycling protocol for items like water bottles and cardboard boxes have stalled, instead of sending them straight to the dump. Many recycling facilities no longer have the staff or the funds to continue, and the increase in the world’s waste production leaves them overwhelmed.

As the world continues to search for a vaccine and ways to adjust to a new normal, the government must devise a plan to guarantee waste management systems are supported. Single-use plastic proves to be an excellent short-term assistant to our needs during the COVID crisis, but if we’re not careful, it can have long-term, detrimental effects on our environment and the public’s health.

BurCell® Technologies: A Solution to the World’s Waste

The solution to waste management isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. It’s one that requires many pieces to solve the problem. We at BurCell® Technologies believe that our proprietary BurCell® System is a solution to fighting the waste epidemic by offering a better waste management option. We put municipal waste to greater use, able to reuse as much as 75 percent of the material we process to create a highly digestible feedstock that can be used for biogas, nutrient-rich soil, and more.

Contact our team for more information about the BurCell® System and our company!