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Study: 8.4 million tons of plastic waste worldwide linked to Covid pandemic

Researchers said they were especially struck by the amount of hospital-generated medical waste.

(CN) — An estimated 8.4 million tons of plastic waste associated with the Covid-19 pandemic were generated from 193 countries as of August, according to researchers at Nanjing University in China.

In a study published Monday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the researchers suggested there may be negative effects attributable to the pandemic-related influx of plastic pollution. Authors Yiming Peng, Peipei Wu and their colleagues noted that the treatment, disposal and recycling of plastic waste did not keep up with the massive, global demand for plastic-based personal protective equipment over the course of the pandemic.

According to their findings, approximately 25,900 tons of this pandemic-associated plastic waste was released into the oceans. The scientists said this accounted for about 1.5% of the globe’s plastic waste discharge from rivers and watersheds. The authors of the study pointed to the pandemic-associated plastic waste as the tip of the iceberg.

“The Covid-related plastic is only a portion of a bigger problem we face in the 21st century: plastic waste. To solve it requires a lot of technical renovation, transition of economy and change of lifestyle,” Yanxu Zhang, a professor at Nanjing University’s School of Atmospheric Sciences, told Courthouse News in a statement.

Zhang said that the proper disposal of personal protective equipment and online shopping packaging materials would be helpful in reducing the generation of further pandemic-associated plastic waste. Because previous studies focused primarily on personal protective equipment, he said the research team was most surprised by how much of the pandemic-associated plastic came from hospitals.

“We found the results that the contribution from hospital-generated medical waste is the largest most surprising,” said Zhang. “Our results reveal that mismanagement of medical waste in developing countries is a big environmental concern.”

Previous studies have found that plastic pollution continues to increase, even as a sizeable portion of the public acknowledges it is a problem.

Using a model to simulate the journey of the plastic waste, the researchers found that 71% of the excess plastic waste in the oceans is likely to end up washing ashore on beaches. By the end of the century, they predict nearly all the pandemic-associated plastic waste will ultimately litter the seabed or shorelines.

Over 165 million tons of plastic waste currently exists in the oceans. Beyond the visible plastic pollution, there are microplastics throughout the seas and embedded in the seafloor. A 2019 study by Australia’s University of Newcastle indicated humans may be ingesting 5 grams of plastic per week, the equivalent of one credit card.

According to the authors of the study, research assessing mitigation efforts, addressing the root causes of plastic pollution and illuminating the public health and environmental effects remains as important as ever.

“The findings underscore the need for improved plastic waste disposal and treatment measures and increased awareness of the environmental impact of pandemic-associated plastic waste,” the authors said in a statement accompanying the study’s release.

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