Jackie Thompson

The pandemic has changed life as we know it perhaps forever. We have seen more changes to our daily life in the past year than we have in a long time. But one of the less noticeable changes has been the pandemic’s impact on waste management. In 2020, the World Health Organization requested a 40% escalation of disposable PPE, which has translated into greater amounts of waste. Hospitals in Wuhan produced up to six times more medical waste than usual, which accumulated to over 240 tons of single-use plastic medical waste, and that is just one example. And while the plan to inoculate the world against the virus is slow but sure, it is important to focus on right now and the things that we can control at least partly.

Why Has the Pandemic Had Such an Impact on Waste Management?

As briefly covered above, one of the biggest waste management issues caused by the pandemic is the increase in single-use disposable waste. We all need things now that we didn’t before, especially masks and plastic gloves. The problem is that the mass production and mass distribution of these plastic-based items has led to an increase in landfills and non-biodegradable waste clogging up the environment. It has even been estimated by recent studies that 129 billion masks and 65 billion gloves are used every month, though there are still no advancements on making them recyclable. And with many places still requiring masks and lots of industries requiring plastic gloves as well, there seems to be no way out of this dilemma.

And it is not just disposable plastic waste ending up in landfills either. There has also been an increase of people throwing disposable waste onto the ground in streets and other public places. Instead of throwing masks away, some people simply drop them on the ground when they exit a store and no longer need to wear them. The Ocean Conservancy reported that 94 percent of volunteers reported seeing face masks, gloves, and other PPE litter in their communities on a regular basis. This pollutes the natural environment and endangers animals and their habitats, not to mention the hazards posed to the people who clear up this waste which could potentially be contaminated with COVID-19.

Where Does the Everyday Citizen Feature in this Large-Scale Problem?

The importance of recycling and responsible disposal of waste has always been stressed, but that can only do so much good when the bulk of the waste produced in response to this pandemic is non-recyclable. However, the pandemic has also seen chaotic changes in behavior from the general population that have ultimately resulted in more waste and poorer waste management. More and more people have been having things delivered to their homes, and these packages are more often than not wrapped in plastic. Despite the fact that global supply chains are continuing to deliver vaccines with utmost efficiency, many vaccinated (and unvaccinated) individuals still opt for deliver over in-person purchases. This high demand for products has also led to more waste being produced by companies. Amazon, for example, was recently exposed as destroying millions of items of unsold stock every year.

Panic buying, which occurred before the rollout of the vaccine program to inoculate the world, meant that numerous households across the world were hoarding large amounts of food, toilet paper and other necessities, all of which are packaged in plastic, cardboard, tin and glass. And though these materials are all recyclable, that does not mean that they were all properly separated and disposed of. The increased pressure on waste management practices has resulted in people taking other avenues, including mobile incineration, direct landfills, and local burnings.

How Have Waste Management Companies Been Dealing with Garbage?

The pandemic has put extra pressure on waste management companies because they have been dealing with higher amounts of waste. The potential for hazardous waste has also increased, so waste management employees have been some of the more high-risk workers during the pandemic. As of 2020, there are over 12,000 businesses in the American waste collection industry, which suggests that there is enough manpower to deal with this increase in garbage, but not every waste management company has the facilities to cope. For example, not all of them have landfill sites to dispose of large amounts of waste.

A 2020 survey by the Environmental Research & Education Foundation and the National Waste & Recycling Association for waste management companies revealed that two-thirds of respondents noted that they are facing moderate to severe operations impacts due to COVID-19 restrictions. This indicates that it is not just the amounts of garbage putting strain on these companies, but it is also the strain caused by the restrictions put in place to make the workplace safe. More waste management staff is at risk in order to keep waste disposal going, yet even then the restrictions have impacted the fluidity of the process, which means less waste can be disposed of at a single time.

The Future of Waste Management 

Throughout all the devastation caused by the Coronavirus pandemic, the world has barely been afforded the stability of knowing what will happen next. With multiple lockdowns, different rules in different countries and a virus that is still very much among us, we cannot exactly plan ahead. This means that waste is one of the things we cannot predict, especially with single-use disposable products (masks and gloves) still needing to be produced and other plastic-based products (hand sanitizers). The future of waste management is in flux because the pressures on industries, hospitals and individual citizens will not ease. Until the world has reached a safe point where these items will no longer need to be mass produced and distributed, the problem will only continue.


Photo by Gary Chan on Unsplash