Course:EOSC270/2022/Covid 19: The Effects of Single Use Plastics on Marine Ecosystems

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The Plastic Pandemic (Lauren Viviers)


Oceans globally are greatly affected by the mass amounts of plastic pollution. An overwhelming 14 million tons of plastic accumulates in the ocean each year[1] causing stress to the ecosystem and harm to the marine organisms. In 2020 a new challenge arose that made the plastic problem worse: the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic generated an additional 7-9.8 million tons of plastic from the beginning of the pandemic to August 2021 across 193 countries [2] and a predicted 25.9 thousand tons of that plastic found its way to the global oceans [2]. With the pandemic consequences ongoing today, plastic pollution continues to worsen causing a global threat to the oceans and the species that live within them.

Face masks

Figure 1. Covid-19 face masks polluting the beaches in Kástro, Andravida-Kyllini, West Greece contributing to the micro plastic problem.

Face masks have always been used in a medical setting, but due to the global pandemic the need for them in everyday life has increased tremendously. A study done in March 2021 estimated that 129 billion medical face masks were being used each month of the pandemic globally[3]. Due to the mixed materials face masks contain, they cannot be recycled. For example, China was producing 116 million face masks each day in February 2020[4] (12 times higher than the pre-pandemic amount)and 75% of those masks will be located to either the landfills or the oceans[4]. Disposable face masks eventually decompose into micro-plastics due to the materials they contain; however, to fully decompose, it can take up to 450 years[5]. Face masks are generally composed of polyester, polypropylene, polycarbonate including many other polymers[6]. The improperly disposed masks will be carried by winds and through ocean currents to be dispersed throughout the ocean.

Hospital PPE

Hospital PPE (personal protective equipment) has been one of the biggest contributors of plastic waste during the pandemic. Globally, hospitals are generating mass amounts of plastics each day to ensure the safety of healthcare workers, staff and patients. Single use plastic materials such as gloves, aprons, gowns, and disposable face masks being disposed of after each patient. Gloves alone are a big contributor to pandemic plastic as an estimated 65 billion gloves are produced each month globally[7]. There was a 500% increase in hospital plastic waste between 2018 (pre-pandemic) to 2020 (pandemic)[8]. Managing the waste of PPE has become a world issue.

Increased Single-use Plastic in Households

Single use plastic has also increased among households. To limit the spread, multiple lockdown measures have been put into place since 2020. During these lockdowns single use plastic increased for a variety of reasons. When stores were closed, people resorted to online shopping where items are heavily packaged into plastic. Reusable items such as cups, bags and much more were temporarily band to decrease transmission rates. Reusable items have been considered a risk throughout the pandemic, so single use plastic was the solution to prevent transmission. However, while limiting transmission of COVID-19, the plastic problem has worsened. In 2021, the global plastic packaging market reported a 5.5% increase of plastic production[8]. Marine ecosystems saw a 30% increase of plastic waste from the single use plastic takeout containers as well as from the mask mandate[8].

How does this Problem Impact Marine Ecosystems? (Alexandra Fehr)

What is the Impact of Plastics on Marine Organisms?

The prevalence of anthropogenic single-use plastics within the marine ecosystem is a growing concern as the issue continues to worsen with the continued accumulation of debris within the oceans. The accumulation of plastic waste is a growing concern as the debris is a choking and entanglement hazard for numerous marine taxa. Many marine organisms will regard floating debris as a food source and go to consume it, later resulting in a buildup of plastics within their internal systems[9]. Anthropogenic plastic pollution, especially buoyant plastics, is especially harmful to wildlife. Their buoyancy characteristics, degradation dynamics, and ability to mimic prey behavior incites animals to consume the material. This will result in internal issues and a heightened risk of mortality as many animals mistake plastic for a food source, consume it, then face the threat of plastic buildup within their gastrointestinal tract [9]. Plastic is also hazardous as it is oftentimes able to catch onto marine organisms and become entangled on them. Sometimes the debris can get caught on juvenile organisms and cut into them as it grows, causing body mutilation and posing a risk for infection [10].

Figure 3. Sea turtle on a beach polluted with plastics.

Plastic chemical composition also poses a large risk to marine occupants as they leach toxic compounds[11] into the surrounding environment. A major issue concerning plastic toxicity effects on marine organisms can affect hormone regulation in the cell of organisms as well as interfere with organism metabolism and disrupt endocrine regulation[12]. The overall impact of plastic pollutants distributed throughout the aquatic environment poses a severe threat to the health and wellbeing of many various marine organisms.

Where does Plastic Pollution Congregate on the Surface and how does this Location Impact Marine Organisms?

It is hypothesized that of the 8 million metric tonnes of plastic entering the ocean each year, the majority of it should float at the surface and interact with organisms within the epipelagic zone due to their chemical composition making most of the plastic products less dense than water[13]. The missing plastics accumulate along shorelines, coastal regions, and offshore environments a large quantity of plastic pollution can end up very deep within the ocean as far as the seafloor. It is theorized that only 1% of plastic floats on the surface while the other 99% could reside within the deep ocean. Plastic, in the form of microplastics (very small plastic particulates), was discovered in hotspots on the ocean floor[14] among sediment deposits.

What is the Effect of Microplastics on Marine Organisms?

Figure 4. An image depicting various forms of microplastics that are typically found within the marine environment.

Microplastics are very small plastic particulates that can accumulate in many areas in the ocean environment. Microplastics make up to 85 percent of the total plastic pollution found along shorelines and have been found within various aquatic organisms in every tested body of water[15]. The negative impact of microplastics includes tissue damage, reduced growth, and mortality. It was also discovered that taxa at the basis of the food chain were more heavily influenced by microplastics compared to higher taxa[15].

The Extent of the Problem Regarding Single-Use Plastic Pollution (Shailin Djavanmardi)

Single-use plastic pollution has resulted in environmental and economic impacts that transcend the marine ecosystem.

Effects on Greenhouse Gas Emission

Figure 5. Plastic waste generated (black) and the three plastic waste disposal methods, landfills (red), incineration (green), recycling (blue). The x-axis indicates every 10 years, and the y-axis indicates every 5,000 million metric tons of that specific plastic waste elimination process. Solid lines display the pre-pandemic period while dashed lines display the pandemic period.

Greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide and methane, are a major source of concern during the decomposition of plastic trash in landfills[16]. According to Figure 4, the most commonly used techniques of plastic waste disposal around the world are incineration, mechanical recycling, and landfilling. At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, there was a massive increase in plastic waste disposal which is indicated by the dashed lines[17]. The most effective method was incineration, shown in green, which is preferred by hospitals to avoid contamination. However, this waste elimination process enhances greenhouse gas emissions, therefore, contributing to global warming[18]. Given the likelihood of the virus spreading, greenhouse gas emissions from landfills and incineration will increase as a result of a significant percentage of trash going to landfills and recycling facilities[18].

The Abuse of Gloves in Hospitals

Another common occurrence in hospitals is the overuse of gloves. In order to avoid cross-contamination, gloves must be used once and then changed between patients and different treatment procedures on the same patient[19]. However, this results in an increase in single-use plastic. Observational studies demonstrate that plastic gloves are overused in various healthcare settings, further indicating the misuse of single-use plastics that are contributing to waste[20].

Deliveries of Necessities Lead to the Rise of Plastic Waste

Throughout the duration of the pandemic, online shopping and takeout services resulted in a significant increase in the demand for single-use plastics[21]. As a result, there was a significant decrease in the limitations and bans on consuming single-use plastics[22]. Subsequently, the projected demands for single-use plastic soared by 4% to 5% in the United States. This indicates that the demand is predicted to increase at a rate of 4.5% per year over the course of the next five years[23].

The High Costs in Removing Plastic Waste

Removal of plastic pollution requires an immense dedication of time, money, and other essential reform resources. However, these clean-up operations are still an important global management measure, especially after the pandemic’s demand for single-use plastics. The demand to remove plastic waste has a significant impact on small island nations such as Aldabra Atoll which receives large amounts of plastic debris from around the world, demonstrating that plastic has become a global problem. In March 2019, when the plastic litter was collected in Aldabra, a total of 25 tonnes was gathered, costing $224,537 and 18,000 person-hours of labour in clean-up[24]. There are an estimated 513 tonnes that remain, the greatest quantity ever recorded for a single island. Thus, despite the importance of these clean-up operations, one cannot avoid the fact that there are a lot of repercussions as a consequence[24].

Solutions (Natalie Saito)

Pandemic Delay

Before the COVID-19 pandemic governing policies worldwide had focused in on initiating sustainable practices in accordance with Paris Agreement in 2016[25]. However, following the lockdowns and economic shutdown governments focus shifted to allocate efforts into pandemic protocol and aid.  Sterilized PPE and single use plastics has been used in medicine as common practice for decades. Plastic is fast, effective, dependable and cheap thus exacerbated by pandemic stress PPE usage increased drastically[26]. With the delays in climate action and increased plastic usage, solutions are needed to counteract the devastating outcomes on marine ecosystems.

Figure 6. Plastic waste along beach shoreline.

Sustainable Manufacturing

An important method in combating plastic usage is investing in sustainable alternatives and innovation of new materials. Current PPE (personal protective equipment) is made from plastic derivatives and have limited possible waste management solutions due to biomedical contamination.  Potential innovation could lead to reusable or recycled PPE to counter single use plastic and decrease medical waste [27]. The UK is researching plastic free wood and paper-based visors that even with single use have sustainable supply and disposal[25].  Bio- based plastic is another emerging alternative to plastics, which can be applied in the medical field with uses for shields, ventilators, dividers and syringes[27]. Intense research is required to fully understand the sustainability and efficacy of plastic alternatives. Sustainable PPE is ideal but unfortunately not cost effective for countries and local business dealing with pandemic economic struggles. Likewise, reliable PPE is needed in hospital settings where severe exposure to contaminants and infection is observed. Developing new methods to reduce plastic usage will hopefully help prevent the extent of waste in future pandemics[27].

Policy and Planning

Figure 7. Waste sorting disposal for public use in a community park Moscow, Russia.

With the burden of pandemic regulation many governments have temporarily retracted plastic sustainability policy considering plastics necessity during the pandemic. The effect of the delayed policy causes changes in customer acceptance to sustainability initiatives in consumerism[26]. Thus, it’s essential to incorporate policy following the pandemic to initiate efforts and curb the effects of the pandemics pollution[28]. Examples of policy change include, adding incentives to encourage sustainable action, taxing highly packaged items or developing producer responsibility to encourage businesses to invest in sustainability. With knowledge of the climate impact from this pandemic, policy around plastic usage and management would assist in lowering damage of potential future pandemic.

Waste Management

A main issue with the influx in pandemic plastic is the biomedical hazard and transmission risk of infected waste[7]. the pandemic many countries closed waste management facilities because of infection risk[26]. On the community level, these regulations increased the improper sorting of potentially recyclable material. Currently incineration is used to dispose of mixed hazardous waste, however with its large CO2 outputs and inefficient breakdown is not a viable solution. Introducing sterilization of high-risk waste may help to increase safety for waste workers and prevent shutdown for the future[7]. On the broader scale international assistance is necessary in developing sustainable waste management solutions in countries with minimal options[29]. Collectively It is essential to improve total worldwide waste systems.


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