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Collateral damage: COVID-19’s impact on ocean plastic pollution

Covid plastic

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The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the vulnerability of the global waste management system, and in the race to produce exponentially more personal protective equipment (PPE), brought on environmental collateral damage, particularly to the ocean. This indirect impact highlights an urgent need to invest in the waste management industry that can turn this crisis into a growth opportunity and support lives and livelihoods that depend on its sustainability.

First, there are a few important ways the pandemic has worsened the fragility of the global waste management system, particularly in countries with weak infrastructure. Lockdowns halted more than 80 percent of the recycling value chain in Vietnam, the Philippines and India. By April, more than 45 percent of recycling facilities in the United Kingdom reported disruptions to operations, due to the pandemic response.

Collapsing oil prices also mean less demand for recycled materials as a feedstock for products and packaging, and the market for these materials has been seriously affected. Since March, recyclers across South and Southeast Asia have seen on average a 50 percent drop in demand for their products and a 21 percent drop in sales prices — affecting lives and livelihoods. 

Fighting the pandemic should not come at the cost of stemming the flow of plastic pollution into the environment.

Adding to the complexity of this challenge, increased production and use of PPE have contributed to increased environmental pollution. Cities such as Manila, Kuala Lumpur, Hanoi and Bangkok saw a near-doubling of medical waste, producing 154 to 280 tons more medical waste per day than before the pandemic. Meanwhile, the World Wildlife Fund estimates that if just 1 percent of the 1 billion masks used in Italy every month are discarded improperly, it could lead to an accumulation of 10 million plastic masks in the environment, causing unprecedented pollution.

These shocks brought on by the pandemic underscore the enormous scale of investment required to stem the growing tide of plastic pollution. Efficient plastic waste management is instrumental in tackling the long-term threats posed by skyrocketing plastic pollution levels, further fueled by the coronavirus pandemic.

The good news is there is a way to do so.

An analysis published in "Breaking the Plastic Wave," a report from SYSTEMIQ and the Pew Charitable Trusts, also featured on the cover of Science, provides the most comprehensive assessment to-date of the pathways to reduce ocean plastic pollution by 80 percent by 2040. The study focuses on solutions: It shows we can achieve an 80 percent reduction by focusing on reducing growth in plastic production and consumption, substituting some plastics with alternatives such as paper and compostable materials, designing products and packaging for recycling, expanding waste collection rates in middle- and low-income countries, increasing recycling and reducing plastic waste exports.

The study estimates that the global public sector cost of managing plastic waste in a "system change scenario" between 2021 and 2040 is expected to be $600 billion in present value, compared to the $670 billion cost to manage a high-leakage system under a business-as-usual scenario.

Systemic change doesn’t need to cost more. In fact, "Breaking the Plastic Wave" shows that the system change scenario requires a $1.2 trillion capital investment over 20 years, compared to $2.5 trillion under business as usual. However, systemic change will require a reduced dependency on virgin plastic production and a substantial shift of investment to innovative materials, the production of new delivery models, recycling facilities and collection infrastructure, some of which are less mature technologies and carry greater risk.

To enable the required capital investments into these technologies, we must first ensure they have a reasonable operational profitability, which too often they do not. This can be supported either through voluntary or mandatory extended producer responsibility (EPR) or by ensuring recycled content is sold at a premium by setting minimum recycled content targets or by reducing the cost of sorting and recycling by eliminating certain pigments, additives and polymers (secondary clear plastic is worth a lot more than secondary colored plastic, hence improving overall recycling economics).

A permanent solution will require us to galvanize investor capital and double down on investments that can turn plastic waste from an economic and environmental cost into a resource and valued commodity.

The report finds that true systems change will require government incentives and leveling of the playing field, but also risk-taking by industry and investors. As the report shows, business-as-usual involves much greater risk, not only to ecosystems but also to the industry. In addition to improving ocean health, adopting the changes outlined in the report could generate savings of $70 billion for governments by 2040, relative to business as usual; reduce projected annual plastic-related greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent; and create 700,000 jobs.

A permanent solution will require us to galvanize investor capital and double down on investments that can turn plastic waste from an economic and environmental cost into a resource and valued commodity. The development of a circular economy to address our plastic waste crisis presents us with a unique economic opportunity for companies ahead of the curve, ready to unlock value by deriving revenue from the circulation of materials rather than the extraction and conversion of fossil fuels. Large new value pools can be created around better design, better materials, better delivery models, improved sorting and recycling technologies and smart collection and supply chain management systems.

Achieving the vision of near-zero ocean plastic pollution will require significant investment in downstream waste management services, technological advances, new business models and, most crucially, accelerating upstream innovation. It will require a focused, well-funded R&D agenda, including moon-shot ambitions, to help middle-low-income countries leapfrog the unsustainable linear economy model of high-income countries. At each stage, capital is necessary for the type of expansion that can convert waste into value.

Responding to the ocean plastic challenge is entirely compatible to a sustainable post-COVID green recovery and consistent with economic aims to "build back better": creating more resilient waste management infrastructures, investing in a circular economy for plastic waste and protecting community health through regular waste collection. The United Nations recently called on governments to treat waste management as an "urgent and essential service" to contribute to combatting the virus and preventing "knock-on" effects to public health and the environment.

Fighting the pandemic should not come at the cost of stemming the flow of plastic pollution into the environment. We should not attempt to solve one crisis at the risk of worsening another — particularly when the world has today the tools it needs to radically reduce ocean plastic pollution within a generation.

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