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COVID19 Exacerbation of Medical Plastic Waste

The COVID19 pandemic has produced a huge demand for single use plastic for personal protective equipment, medical tools, testing and packaging. Recycling of medical plastic waste has not kept up with the increased demand for plastic products. This mismanaged plastic waste has been discharged into the environment and a significant portion has reached the oceans.

Researchers from the School of Atmospheric Sciences in Nanjing University in China and the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego have quantified the impact of the COVID19 pandemic plastic discharge. As of August 23, 2021, 193 countries had generated 8.4 +/- 1.4 million tons of pandemic-associated plastic waste. Hospitals accounted for 73% of the total global discharge, with most (72%) originating in Asia. Approximately 1.5% of the total, or 25.9 +/- 3.8 thousand tons of plastic waste, were discharged into rivers and ultimately transported it to the ocean. This plastic will ultimately pollute beaches and the seabed. Some of it will accumulate in the floating garbage patches of plastic in the Pacific and Indian Oceans. The Arctic Ocean will be the dead-end for plastic debris transport due to the northern branch of the thermohaline circulation.

The researchers, from China and the US, urged all nations, particularly low- and middle-income countries, to better manage medical and other plastic waste as the pandemic continues. Innovative technologies are needed to improve plastic waste collection, classification, treatment, and recycling.


Peng Y, et al. Plastic waste release caused by COVID-19 and its fate in the global ocean. PNAS 2021;118, No 47, e2111530118.

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