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SCIENCE MAG: Accumulation of plastic waste during COVID-19

Excerpt from “Science” Magazine: Vol 369, Issue 6509 Published: 11 September 2020

As lockdowns took effect to slow the spread of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), the global demand for petroleum collapsed. As a result, oil prices plummeted, making the manufacture of virgin plastics from fossil fuels less expensive than recycling (1). This cost incentive, along with lifestyle changes that increase plastic use, has complicated the challenge of overcoming plastic pollution.

During the pandemic, personal protective equipment (PPE) has driven increased plastic pollution. In response to high PPE demand among the general public, health care workers, and service workers, single-use face mask production in China soared to 116 million per day in February, about 12 times the usual quantity (2). The World Health Organization has requested a 40% escalation of disposable PPE production (3). If the global population adheres to a standard of one disposable face mask per day after lockdowns end, the pandemic could result in a monthly global consumption and waste of 129 billion face masks and 65 billion gloves (4). Hospitals in Wuhan, the center of the COVID-19 outbreak, produced more than 240 tons of single-use plastic-based medical waste (such as disposable face masks, gloves, and gowns) per day at the peak of the pandemic, 6 times more than the daily average before the pandemic occurred (5). If the increases observed in Wuhan hold true elsewhere, the United States could generate an entire year’s worth of medical waste in 2 months (6).

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