Nov 8, 2021 - Energy & Environment

Study: Over 25,000 tons of COVID-related plastic waste pollutes oceans

Photo of plastic waste, including a rubber glove, plastic cup and face mask, on a sea shore next to a body of water

Plastic debris and face masks on a beach in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. Photo: Andrey Nekrasov/Barcroft Media via Getty Images

Over 25,000 tons of pandemic-related plastic waste pollute the global ocean, according to a study published in the journal PNAS on Monday.

Why it matters: Plastic waste poses a major threat to marine life and ecosystems. COVID-19 only increased the demand for single-use plastic, "intensifying pressure on this already out-of-control problem," the researchers write.

  • The world has generated over 8 million tons of pandemic-related plastic waste. Most of this waste comes from hospitals and mainly accumulates on beaches and coastal sediments.

Threat level: "The released plastics can be transported over long distances in the ocean, encounter marine wildlife, and potentially lead to injury or even death," the researchers said.

For the record: A recent study estimated that 1.56 million face masks entered the oceans in 2020. The excess waste will serve a long-term risk, researchers caution.

The bottom line: "We find a long-lasting impact of the pandemic-associated waste release in the global ocean," the study states.

  • "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%)."
  • The findings reflect the need to improve medical waste management mechanisms, especially in developing countries, researchers note.

The big picture: Plastic pollution in oceans and other bodies of water could more than double by 2030, per an October assessment by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP).

  • Recycling won't cut it anymore, the report found.
  • "It is vital that we use this momentum to focus on the opportunities for a clean, healthy and resilient ocean," UNEP executive director Inger Andersen said in a statement.

Worth noting: The study comes as world leaders tackle climate change at COP26 in Glasgow.

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