Plastic waste release caused by COVID-19 and its fate in the global ocean


Professor Yanxu Zhang and his group qualify the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the plastic discharge and estimate the global generation of pandemic-associated plastic waste and the plastic debris transport in the global ocean. Most of the plastic is from medical waste generated by hospitals that dwarfs the contribution from personal protection equipment and online-shopping package material. This poses a long-lasting problem for the ocean environment and is mainly accumulated on beaches and coastal sediments.


Fig. 1. Discarded face masks in the ocean, Sardinia, Italy (photo source: shutterstock)

Plastics have an excellent strength to weight ratio, and they are durable and inexpensive, making them the material of choice for most disposable medical tools, equipment, and packaging. The recent COVID-19 pandemic has led to an increased demand for single-use plastic. The surging number of inpatients and virus testing substantially increase the amount of plastic medical waste. To sustain the enormous demand for personal protective equipment (PPE, including face masks, gloves, and face shields), many single-use plastic (SUP) legislations have been withdrawn or postponed. In addition, lockdowns, social distancing, and restrictions on public gathering increase the dependency on online shopping at an unprecedented speed, the packaging material of which often contains plastics. Unfortunately, the treatment of plastic waste is not keeping up with the increased demand for plastic products. This mismanaged plastic waste (MMPW) is then discharged into the environment, and a portion reaches the ocean. Despite the potential impacts, the total amount of pandemic-associated plastic waste and its environmental and health impacts are largely unknown.


Fig. 2. Accumulated riverine discharge of pandemic-associated mismanaged plastics to the global ocean.

The authors simulate the transport and fate of pandemic-associated plastic waste till 2100 by the Nanjing University MITgcm-Plastic model (NJU-MP) to evaluate its impact on the marine environment. The model reveals that 8.4 ± 1.4 million tons of pandemic-associated plastic waste have been generated from 193 countries as of August 23, 2021, with 25.9 ± 3.8 thousand tons released into the global ocean. A dominant fraction (87.4%) of this excess waste is from hospitals.  PPE usage by individuals contributes only 7.6% of the total excess wastes. Most mismanaged plastic waste (MMPW) is produced in Asia (46%), followed by Europe (24%), and finally in North and South America (22%). Pandemic epicenters in particular struggle to process the waste, and not all the used PPEs and packaging materials are handled or recycled. At the end of this century, almost all the pandemic-associated plastics end up in either the seabed (28.8%) or beaches (70.5%), potentially hurting the benthic ecosystems.


Fig. 3. Modeled spatial distribution of mass concentrations of COVID-19-associated plastics in the surface ocean in 2021, and 2100, respectively.

On Nov 8, 2021, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences published paper titled “Plastic waste release caused by COVID-19 and its fate in the global ocean”. After publication, the paper was reported by several scientific media.

Professor Yanxu Zhang from the School of Atmospheric Sciences (SAS), NJU is corresponding author of the paper. Postgraduate student Yiming Peng and Dr. Peipei Wu from SAS are the first authors. This research is funded by the National Natural Science Foundation of China (Grant Nos. 42177349 and 41875148), the Fundamental Research Funds for the Central Universities (Grant No. 0207-14380168), Frontiers Science Center for Critical Earth Material Cycling, Jiangsu Innovative and Entrepreneurial Talents Plan, and the Collaborative Innovation Center of Climate Change, Jiangsu Province. 

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