Plastic from the United Kingdom found in a Malaysian dump site.
Plastic from the United Kingdom found in a Malaysian dump site. Image: Unearthed

The Plastic Pandemic

Sarah Schuette February 9, 2021

It is easy to imagine the global COVID-19 pandemic as a human problem. With most social interactions and daily activities restricted for the sake of safety, it is easy to feel like the consequences of the virus are restricted to human society alone. However, the changes seen in society over the past year have had unprecedented consequences for the global environment. At first glance, the decline in human social activity can appear beneficial for the environment as reports broadcast wild animals returning to popular cities and cleaner air with declining vehicle use. While exciting, such reports highlight only the short-term effects of the current alteration of the human lifestyle, neglecting the long-term impacts. Increases in the use of disposable personal protection equipment (PPE) in hospital facilities, the purchasing of takeout and home-delivery meals, and the use of plastic packaging for groceries and other goods are causing waste to accumulate at an unprecedented rate in landfills around the world. Society’s relationship with plastic was damaging to the environment before the COVID-19 pandemic, so if action is not taken to minimize the accumulation of plastic waste, the environmental impact could be catastrophic.

Medical facilities are the epicenter of the increase in use of single-use plastics and materials. With the numbers of COVID cases rising, the World Health Organization requested the PPE industry to increase their production by 40% (Duer). From a medical point of view, this was necessary to protect front line workers and patients against the spread of airborne particles and cross-contamination. Materials like masks and gloves potentially exposed to the virus must be thrown away and replaced. In some countries, organizations like the Portuguese Environmental Agency further requested that such materials be disposed of as mixed waste rather than recyclables (Silva, L, Prata…). Therefore, not only is the production and consumption of single-use plastics and materials increasing during the pandemic, but the growing accumulation of waste is delivered to landfills. Furthermore, landfills are quickly reaching their maximum capacities as the rate at which waste is accumulating in landfills is faster than waste can be broken down. As a result, larger regions like the United Kingdom (UK) and India are turning to illegal incineration practices, which are known to release an abundance of harmful greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. In the UK alone, it was reported that the amount of illegal waste disposal has risen by 300% during the pandemic (Duer). With waste accumulating, countries around the world should soon expect the long-term impacts of the short-term benefits of single-use materials.

Outside of medical facilities, the changes people have made in their daily lifestyles are major contributors to this plastic pandemic. The National Center for Biotechnology Information estimates the demand for plastics alone during the pandemic will increase by 40% in packaging and 17% for other uses such as medical supplies (Silva, L, Prata…). Barred from dining in restaurants, many people have turned to ordering takeout or home-delivery meals at an unprecedented rate. According to the National Restaurant Association, the tendency for adults to order out from restaurants has increased by about 7% since the last week of February in 2019 (Grindy). Many restaurants package and deliver their food in styrofoam containers and plastic bags, both of which are non recyclable materials. Therefore, as with the disposal of PPE, the amount of waste per household sent to landfills is rising. Unlike restaurants, many grocery stores have remained open for in-person business. Yet, with the fear surrounding the spread of the virus in highly populated locations, grocery stores have been no better at promoting sustainable practices. Often, customers are disallowed from bringing in reusable bags out of fear that the virus can stick to cloth. Whether or not this is true, the returning dependence of grocery stores on plastic bags for bagging customers’ groceries is adding to the plastic being disposed of in households and sent to landfills.

Neither medical facilities nor restaurant and grocery businesses have an incentive to replace their plastic materials with sustainable ones due to the plastic’s low risk of spreading the virus as well as its cheap price. Therefore, the potential for the protection of the environment lies in the hands of individuals outside these markets. Those not required to use disposable masks and gloves should consider purchasing or making masks and gloves that are capable of being washed and reused after a necessary outing. Not only will doing so reduce the amount of waste being added to landfills, but it will eliminate the need to spend additional money on new protective equipment. Individuals can limit their reliance on takeout and delivery from restaurants to reduce the amount of styrofoam and plastic bags used. And on occasions where the decision to get takeout is made, individuals can request for minimal use of the harmful packaging by asking that the styrofoam containers not be bagged in plastic, and by providing their own eating utensils. At the grocery store, individuals can return their purchased goods to the cart and choose to bag the goods themselves at their car. This practice would allow the continued use of reusable bags while also contributing to the amount of time spent social-distancing. Finally, individuals should focus more than ever on disposing of waste correctly, and recycling goods that are capable of being recycled. If humans are going to prevent the plastic pandemic from becoming yet another negative effect of the COVID-19 pandemic, individuals must begin to find a way to incorporate sustainable practices into the precautionary measures of their new lifestyles.


Duer, Jacob. “The Plastic Pandemic Is Only Getting Worse during COVID-19.” World Economic Forum. Project Syndicate, 1 July 2020. Web. 07 Feb. 2021.

Grindy, Bruce. “Consumers Are Expected to Continue Using Takeout and Delivery.” National Restaurant Association. 4 Nov. 2020. Web. 07 Feb. 2021.

Patrício Silva, Ana L, Joana C Prata, Tony R Walker, Armando C Duarte, Wei Ouyang, Damià Barcelò, and Teresa Rocha-Santos. “Increased Plastic Pollution Due to COVID-19 Pandemic: Challenges and Recommendations.” Chemical Engineering Journal (Lausanne, Switzerland : 1996). Elsevier B.V., 17 Aug. 2020. Web.

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