A Crisis on Top of a Crisis

The reemergence of single-use plastics during the COVID-19 pandemic

In recent years, cities and states have made noticeable progress in addressing the negative environmental effects of single-use plastics. Legislation to replace plastic shopping bags and food containers with reusable earth-friendly versions was a bold first step in removing tons of plastic materials from landfills and waterways.

Then came COVID-19.

This once-in-a century pandemic has not only forced us to change many aspects of our lives for our own health and safety, it has also created a new and unprecedented surge in the use of single-use plastics.

Eroding hard-fought efforts

A study by the investment bank Jefferies shows that because of virus-driven behavioral changes caused by the pandemic, reliance on nonrecycled, single-use plastic waste — primarily from medical equipment, food delivery and takeout — has gone up substantially. At the same time, plastic bags have reemerged after some retailers banned them. Several states have even taken steps to delay, weaken or reverse laws banning plastic bags in light of the pandemic.

Piling on

Though it will take time to learn precisely how much additional waste has been generated during the pandemic, preliminary data are staggering according to a recent article by the World Economic Forum. In China, the Ministry of Ecology and Environment estimates that hospitals in Wuhan produced more than 240 tons of waste daily at the height of the outbreak — compared to just 40 tons before the pandemic. Based on this data, US experts predict that the United States could generate an entire year’s worth of plastics and medical waste in just two months because of COVID-19.

Short-circuiting disposal and recycling strategies

How to safely dispose of masks, hand sanitizer bottles, and other single-use plastics is another stark consequence of a health crisis that has already devastated economies and healthcare systems worldwide. Environmental groups warn that the plastic materials could overwhelm cities around the world where waste collection and recycling strategies have been short-circuited by lockdowns.  

Compounding the problem, many waste-management services have not been operating at full capacity because of social-distancing rules and stay-at-home orders. In the US, curbside recycling pickup has been suspended in many places including parts of Florida and California.

In the United Kingdom, illegal waste disposal, also known as fly-tipping, has risen by 300% during the pandemic. Even countries that are already advocating recycling and reuse of waste plastics are seeing reduced volume of plastic coming through their systems, a sign that more plastic is ending up in landfills and waterways.

Recommitting to the challenge

According to the World Economic Forum article, while it is essential to protect the vulnerable and ensure that health workers have the tools to do their jobs safely, governments can’t lose sight of the long-term challenges and public health risks generated by excessive plastic waste. But as the article suggests, governments cannot always do it alone. Many developing countries struggle with nonexistent or broken waste-management infrastructure, and only cooperative action can help to change that.

As the global economy restarts, aid agencies and development banks should invest in building effective waste-management systems. Beyond helping to keep plastic waste out of our oceans and landfills, such systems could provide good jobs and improved livelihoods, resulting in stronger, more sustainable economies in the long term.

Keeping your online Code current and up-to-date is vital

Particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic, we want to remind our clients — and all communities — of the importance of keeping your municipal or county codes as current and as accessible as possible. Whether you’re considering new or updated waste legislation or tackling other issues, municipal officials and staff, constituents, business owners, and law enforcement depend on your code being a reliable, accurate resource.

We can help — send us your legislation

Submitting your legislation is as easy as sending it in an email to [email protected]. We’ll take care of getting it properly and quickly incorporated into your code.


The plastic pandemic is only getting worse during COVID-19 by Jacob Duer, World Economic Forum

The COVID-19 pandemic is unleashing a tidal wave of plastic waste, by Shashank Bengali, Los Angeles Times

Plastic waste surges as coronavirus prompts restaurants to use more disposable packaging, by Emma Newburger, CNBC

Accumulation of plastic waste during COVID-19, by Tanveer M. Adyel, Science

The Plastic Pandemic: A Reuters Special Report, by Joe Brock , Reuters

Plastic bags, forks and containers are everywhere during pandemic, increasing pollution by Nathan Bomey, USA Today

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