This article, originally published in February 2022, is part of a series in which OECD experts and thought leaders — from around the world and all parts of society — address the COVID-19 crisis, discussing and developing solutions now and for the future. Aiming to foster the fruitful exchange of expertise and perspectives across fields to help us rise to this critical challenge, opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the views of the OECD.
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Plastic pollution is one of the greatest environmental challenges of our time and threatens our ability to implement the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. Global plastic production reached 368 million metric tons in 2019. Continued over production by the plastics industry combined with widespread consumer use and over consumption, especially of single-use plastics, has resulted in widespread plastic pollution in the environment. Yet as global plastic production and pollution continues to rise, so too do national and international co-operation and commitments to reduce plastic pollution. In recent years, triggered by increased awareness of the environmental impacts of plastic pollution, many national and regional governments began implementing bans or levies on single-use plastics. Other strategies to reduce plastic pollution and to increase plastic recycling rates include Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), which has been implemented across Europe for decades, and is gaining momentum in Canada. At the international level, the UN has committed to reduce plastic leakage into the environment. In 2019, 187 countries agreed to restrict international trade in plastic waste to reduce leakage into the environment.
To achieve a global plastic waste management strategy and a zero-plastic waste future, unprecedented solutions, approaches and mitigation strategies must be widely adopted and implemented urgently. Between 28 February to 2 March 2022, negotiations will begin to develop a global agreement on plastic pollution at the 5th United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA) 5.2 in Nairobi, Kenya. Urgent action is now required to develop an international binding agreement that includes measurable targets and action plans, adopting strong plastic pollution reduction measures, and strengthening regional and global co-operation and evidence-based decision-making across the full plastics lifecycle.
However, despite recent progress made by governments, international agencies, industry and civil society to reduce plastic pollution, particularly from single-use plastics, the global COVID-19 pandemic has severely disrupted this progress. Global plastic waste generation and plastic pollution has worsened during the two-year COVID-19 pandemic. This has resulted in increased use and disposal of personal protective equipment (PPE) and single-use plastics due to food safety concerns. Early during the COVID-19 pandemic the estimated mismanagement of PPE, resulted in 129 billion face masks and 65 billion gloves being used each month globally. As a result, the environment has suffered unprecedented pollution from indiscriminate disposal of PPE. Much of the past two years has been spent with mandatory mask wearing in public indoor spaces in many jurisdictions around the world. Even though ongoing vaccine distribution is underway around the world, mask wearing and testing kits (also contributing to massive amounts of plastic medical waste), will continue to be a part of the “new normal” life for everyone to help reduce transmission of new COVID-19 variants.
Concerns about mismanagement of disposal PPE have been widely documented. Used gloves and masks have been found littering the environment globally. Impacts from improper disposal of PPE include entanglement or ingestion by wildlife; for example, a juvenile Magellanic penguin was found dead off the coast of Brazil after ingesting a face mask. There are also potential human health risks associated with contaminated PPE, which can act as vectors of the COVID-19 virus. Once in the environment, PPE plastic pollution can degrade and fragment into microplastics.
Once in the environment, PPE plastic pollution can degrade and fragment into microplastics.
Mismanagement of PPE during the COVID-19 pandemic continues to be a pressing issue. Thus, there remains an urgent need to reinforce and raise public awareness on the proper use and disposal of single-use disposal PPE, including advice on the environmental and health benefits of using reusable PPE. Potentially infectious PPE waste has triggered guidance by waste management agencies and health authorities in many jurisdictions. The World Health Organization recommends that PPE be disposed of in closed-lid receptacles and not regular open garbage bins, as used PPE should be treated as potentially infectious. Other guidelines recommend that all potentially contaminated (with PPE) residential waste be disposed of in sealed and leak-proof garbage bags. While some jurisdictions are capable of managing PPE waste properly with high-temperature incineration, landfilling or waste-to-energy conversion via pyrolysis, other jurisdictions lack adequate waste management resources and are forced to use inappropriate strategies such as open-burning or poorly maintained open or shallow landfills. While these disposal options are not without some environmental impacts, they are all preferred over the indiscriminate disposal of PPE in the marine and terrestrial environment.
In addition to increased PPE environmental pollution, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused a surge in consumption of single-use plastics, particularly in the food service sector, due to concerns for public health and safety. To follow public health guidelines, food services have been limited to takeout and have also restricted the use of personal reusable items. The COVID-19 pandemic forced many governments and businesses to rely on single-use plastics and to pause single-use plastic reduction strategies. Obstacles to single-use plastic reduction included operational challenges from COVID-19 public health restrictions, misunderstanding of local waste management systems, lack of sustainable alternatives, and ingrained societal convenience culture. Single-use plastic reduction strategies can be implemented immediately, even during the COVID-19 pandemic, as public health officials and researchers agree that reusable items can be used safely when using basic hygiene measures.
Obstacles to single-use plastic reduction included operational challenges from COVID-19 public health restrictions, misunderstanding of local waste management systems, lack of sustainable alternatives, and ingrained societal convenience culture.
Due to international travel restrictions during the pandemic, many research programmes targeted at measuring plastic pollution were halted. These disruptions to research programmes have stunted the ability to assess accurate estimates of single-use plastics and PPE being mismanaged from the waste stream into the environment. However, by using citizen scientists to collect plastic pollution data, both during and post pandemic, it is possible to raise awareness and to collect valuable data. This citizen science data can be used to develop globally informed plastic pollution mitigation strategies. As we emerge out of the current COVID-19 pandemic governments, corporations, civil society, NGOs and researchers will be co-operating for the establishment of a global legally binding instrument at UNEA 5.2 to deliver a new global agreement to address plastic pollution in the environment.
Read the OECD's Global Plastics Outlook: Policy Scenarios to 2060—the second of two reports, it provides a set of coherent projections on plastics, including plastics use and waste as well as the environmental impacts.
Find out more about the OECD's Global Plastics Outlook which aims to inform and support policy efforts to combat plastic leakage