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Pandemic has led to 8.4M tons of excess plastic waste, researchers estimate

Pandemic has led to 8.4M tons of excess plastic waste, researchers estimate
The COVID-19 pandemic has led to about 8.4 million tons of excess plastic waste produced globally, according to a new study. File Photo by nanD_Phanuwat/Shutterstock

Nov. 8 (UPI) -- Countries globally produced about 8.4 million tons of excess plastic waste over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic through August of this year, researchers estimated in an article published Monday by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Just over 87% of this waste has been generated by hospitals, though discarded personal protective equipment, or PPE, such as face masks and gloves accounts for less than 8% of it, the data showed.

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Virus testing kits and their packaging account for about 5% of the waste, the researchers said.

North and South America account for less than 25% of this pandemic-related plastic waste, despite the fact the continents have recorded about 70% of the world's COVID-19 cases.

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Although less than 1% of this plastic waste is likely to end up in oceans, due to dumping in rivers and other watersheds, an estimated 30,000 tons are still expected to end up in the seas, according to the researchers.

About 71% of this ocean-discharged excess waste will likely land on beaches by the end of this year, the researchers said.

"Globally ,public awareness of the environmental impact of PPE and other plastic products needs to be increased," wrote the researchers, from Nanjing University in China and the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego.

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Worldwide, up to an estimated 13 million metric tons of plastic enter the oceans annually, according to Our World in Data, a consortium made up of thousands of researchers.

However, as healthcare systems and other institutions have relied even more on disposable plastic products -- from face masks to virus testing kits -- during the COVID-19, plastic pollution is expected to increase significantly, research suggests.

For this analysis, the researchers derived their estimates of excess plastic pollution attributable to the pandemic based on data regarding use of products made from material from more than 40 countries.

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This data was fed into a mathematical model created by the researchers to calculate the level of plastic waste generated through this usage.

The model found that levels of excess plastic generated during the pandemic could be as low as 4.4 million tons or as high as 15.1 million tons.

Asia has accounted for 46% of the excess plastic waste linked with the pandemic, while Europe has produced about 24%, the researchers said.

"A lot of single-use plastic items were produced during the pandemic," Philippe Miron, a researcher at Florida State University's Center for Ocean-Atmospheric Prediction Studies, told UPI in an email.

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"Many factors led to the increase of plastic production during the pandemic, such as the higher demands of PPE, while at the same time the recycling industry was forced to shut down," said Miron, who was not involved in this study but has conducted similar research.

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