Written by: Sarah Haley
The COVID-19 pandemic has influenced the environment in both positive and negative ways.
Since the start of the pandemic, there has been a drastic influx in the use and disposal of plastic products, specifically biomedical materials. Biomedical plastic-based wastes include face shields, latex gloves, surgical and isolation gowns, shoe covers, surgical and face masks, syringes, and sanitizer containers.
One of the primary problems associated with single-use biomedical products is the abundance of waste that is produced. Hospitals and medical professionals have been consuming single-use biomedical products long before COVID-19.
Now, not only are medical professionals utilizing personal protective equipment (PPE), but also almost every Canadian citizen.
Since the beginning of COVID-19, there has been an increase in the numbers of disposable gloves and masks littering the streets, oceans, beaches, and landfills. In addition to gloves and masks, there has also been a dramatic increase in the amount of hand sanitizer used by the population.
The improper disposal of the single-use COVID-19 protective gear has added to the already detrimental global plastic pollution problem. Some of the repercussions associated with improper disposal are animal entanglement as well as increased microplastic (particulate size range >2.5 cm) and mesoplastic (particulate size range between 2.5 cm–5 mm) pollution.
These meso- and macroplastics can gain entry into the environment through improper discharge into the terrestrial and marine ecosystems, or through poor waste management.1 After entry into the ecosystems, the plastic debris pose a threat to marine, freshwater, and terrestrial life forms.
Pamela Coke-Hamilton, the director of international trade for the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development said, “plastic pollution was already one of the greatest threats to our planet before the coronavirus outbreak. The sudden boom in the daily use of certain products to keep people safe and stop the disease is making things much worse.”2
The amount of plastic waste that has been generated because of the COVID-19 pandemic is astronomical.
Here are some estimates of how much plastic-based biomedical waste has been produced by Canada, British Columbia, and Greater Victoria.
Hand Sanitizer Plastic Bottles
Upon reopening, every business in Canada was required to compose a COVID-19 safety plan for its employees and customers. For many businesses, part of this safety plan included the installment of hand sanitizer bottles or dispensers around the workplace.3 Because of the safety measures that have been put in place by establishments, there has been a drastic increase in the number of plastic bottles discarded.
For example, Canada has a total of 230,784 retail trade and 119,682 accommodation & food service establishments.4 If every one of these businesses used one bottle of sanitizer, that would be a total of 350,466 plastic bottles for Canada.
British Columbia on the other hand has a total of 33,465 retail trade and 19,994 accommodation & food service establishments.4 That equates to approximately 53,459 plastic bottles for British Columbia.
These values are estimates based off of a single establishment using one bottle of sanitizer. Keep in mind, Canadian businesses have been supplying sanitizer to their employees and customers since the start of the pandemic back in March of 2020. Therefore, it’s extremely likely that these businesses have gone through more than just one bottle of sanitizer.
The plastic bottle waste doesn’t stop there though.
An even more horrifying concept is that in addition to the bottles of sanitizer consumed by businesses, there are the personal bottles of sanitizer that Canadian citizens have used.
If 65% of British Columbia’s population consumed one bottle of sanitizer in addition to the retail trade and accommodation and food establishments, that would be an estimated 3.39 million plastic bottles.5
If 65% of the Canadian population consumed one bottle of sanitizer and Canadian retail and food service establishments also used one bottle of sanitizer, that would be equal to approximately 24.9 million bottles.6
That is 24.9 million plastic bottles contributing to the already fatal global plastic pollution problem. Another fact to take into consideration is that this is only Canada, which holds approximately 0.48% of the total global population.7
It’s hard to imagine the sheer number of sanitizer plastic bottles that have been disposed of on a worldwide scale since the beginning of 2020.
Another factor that must be taken into consideration is the hand sanitizer that has been used by health professionals around the globe. The World Health Organization (WHO) predicted that healthcare professionals would require 2.9 billion litres of sanitizer per month, or around 35 billion litres per year.8
35 billion litres of sanitizer is a big number, but when it’s taken and converted into the number of 750 mL plastic bottles, it’s even bigger.
35 billion litres of sanitizer is equivalent to 46 billion 750 mL plastic bottles.
Research shows that approximately 1 out of 5 plastic bottles get recycled.9 This means that hypothetically, 36.8 billion of those bottles will end up littering our oceans and landfills.
The plastic waste production from the COVID-19 pandemic is a growing danger to not only marine and wild-life animals, but also the human population.
Gloves and Syringes
In addition to hand sanitizer, gloves and syringes have also been required in large amounts during the COVID-19 pandemic.
To calculate an estimate of how many additional gloves have been consumed, the number of COVID-19 tests performed was used. The CDC recommends that a new pair of gloves be used each time a specimen is collected.10
This means that for every COVID-19 test that was performed, a pair of gloves was disposed of.
The number of COVID-19 tests performed in Canada and British Columbia as of June 19th, 2021 were 36.2 and 2.84 million respectively.11
That’s an estimated 72.4 million total gloves disposed of in Canada and 5.69 million total gloves disposed of in British Columbia.
The number of COVID-19 vaccine doses administered was utilized to get an approximation of the number of syringes that have been disposed of. As of June 23, there had been 33.4 million doses administered in Canada and 4.5 million in British Columbia.12
For every one of those vaccine doses, there was a syringe disposed of.
Although the size of a glove and a syringe is small, their impact is not. Even latex gloves which are made out of a natural rubber take at least 5 years to biodegrade due to the added chemicals in them.13
These single-use, plastic, biomedical products are a vital component in the healthcare system to keep people protected and safe. However, their impact on global ecosystems and the life forms living in them should not be overlooked.
It’s no surprise that single-use face masks have been worn and thrown away more in the past year than the years prior. In fact, the face mask market increased from an estimated $800 million in 2019 to $166 billion in 2020.14 That is a substantial market increase that corresponds to a substantial plastic waste increase.
Such a large market increase raises the question: How many masks have been used by Canadians?
A paper published in February of 2021 looked at the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the global plastic waste footprint. The authors utilized two formulas to calculate the number of facemasks generated monthly and daily by various countries.
The formulas take into consideration total estimated population, the percentage of urban population, the percent face mask acceptance rate, and the average daily face masks per capita.
The daily and monthly values were calculated as a product using an estimated single facemask use by an individual per day (and for 30 days average).
Using the formula, the quantity of masks generated daily were computed. The authors of the paper determined that for Canada, there are an estimated 24.5 million face masks discarded daily. That equates to a total estimated plastic waste of 2.83 million tonnes.
Using the same formula, the number of facemasks discarded daily for British Columbia and Greater Victoria were calculated to be 3.56 million and 340,000 respectively.
The number of face masks discarded monthly for Canada, British Columbia, and Greater Victoria were calculated to be an estimated 733, 106, and 10.2 million.
Facemasks are just one of the many forms of biomedical materials that have been used in abundance since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic.
The authors of the paper calculated estimated daily facemask use for Africa, Asia, Europe, South America, North America, and Oceania. The approximate number of facemasks discarded daily by these six regions combined was calculated to be 3.38 billion.
That is an estimated 1.6 million tonnes of plastic waste generated per day.
To put this value in perspective, a Honda Civic weighs 2,771 pounds or roughly 1.26 tonnes.15
Therefore, the weight of plastic waste generated per day globally is equivalent to 1.27 million Honda Civics.
This increase in the amount of plastic waste being produced is adding to the already growing pollution concern. Not only is this plastic threatening ecosystems around the world, but it’s threatening smaller communities like Greater Victoria.
Biomedical materials such as gloves, facemasks, syringes, and sanitizer bottles are not going anywhere. They have allowed Canadians to feel safe and protected during a terrifying time.
The large amount of single-use plastic waste that has been produced by the COVID-19 pandemic will continue to have severe repercussions for the planet. The existing plastic pollution problem will grow, and our wildlife will be harmed.