Coast KZN

08 Sep 2020

Lower emissions, more plastic: Double-edged sword of Covid-19 on the environment

Gabi Zeitsman (

While we’re fighting Covid-19, the planet is struggling with the heavy burden of increased plastic consumption.

Travel bans have considerably reduced carbon emissions and air pollution. This temporary reprieve will, however, quickly disappear as restrictions start lifting.

The Covid-19 pandemic has shone a bright spotlight on the many previously ignored cracks in our society. Just before the virus upended our fragile systems, climate change was one of the main topics dominating headlines, and big moves were being made to change global behaviour regarding single-use plastic and air-travel pollution.

Temporary drop in emissions

Amid the crisis, European firms are increasingly shelving their recycling goals and opting for cheaper non-recycled plastics made from hydrocarbons.

As the pandemic hit and borders closed, bringing travel to a near standstill, many saw it as a chance for Mother Nature to take a breath. And indeed she did. A study published in Science of The Total Environment confirmed that greenhouse gas emissions had dropped to pre-World War II levels.  No one was flying or driving due to strict lockdown regulations, and factories had to close. According to NASA and the European Space Agency, airborne nitrogen dioxide levels dropped drastically in China in January and February this year, and similar reductions were observed in Rome, Madrid and Paris.

Not only the air got a chance to recover, but there was also a sharp decline in beach pollution as Northern Hemisphere coasts were spared the customary invasion of summer crowds. Fewer tourists meant cleaner beaches all over the world.  But, unfortunately, this breather is only temporary. As more restrictions are lifted and people start travelling again, previous levels of pollution will return. A few months of environmental reprieve won’t fix decades of damage.

Rise in plastic consumption

However, the detrimental effects of the pandemic on the environment far outweigh the benefits. The fear of infection and hyper-sanitation practices have reversed many gains made against disposability. The production of masks, gloves, PPE and lots of other throwaway items has skyrocketed with the pandemic, much of which will end up in our oceans and other parts of the environment.

Disposable masks, especially, are potential sources of microplastic fibres that will make their way into the food chain.  Last year, global sales of disposable face masks totalled $800 million. This year it’s already at $166 billion, according to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development. Guess where all those extra masks – and their polymers – will end up.

In Wuhan alone, medical waste increased six-fold during the outbreak, and a similar trend was noted in the US, reports The Verge, and recycling efforts have also decreased during the pandemic.

In South Africa, only 10.9% of urban households recycle, the bulk of which is collected by informal waste reclaimers, according to The Conversation. When lockdown regulations went into effect, they lost access to landfills and couldn’t work in the streets, despite waste management being deemed an essential service by the government. That, plus the fear of infection from unclean waste may counteract many of the country’s recycling efforts.

Online shopping part of the blame

Online services are now more in demand than ever, and the use of plastic packaging has seen a considerable increase during the pandemic. Online shopping and takeaway services are booming as people are hesitant to leave their houses and tend to avoid crowded shopping malls.

Just think about the Takealot box your last online order came in. How much plastic packaging came with it? Now multiply that by a few million, and you’ll end up with a very scary picture.  Many countries are creating way more waste than they used to. Bangkok increased their plastic consumption by 62%, and Singapore has generated more than a thousand extra tons of plastic from takeouts.

Environmental organisations have retrieved masks of all shapes and sizes from the ocean and along highways all over the world.

What can we do?

How can we stop the tide of plastic? The World Bank suggests five ways to help curb this growing environmental disaster:

-A psychological and behavioural shift in looking at reusables as “unhygienic” and differentiating between when we need single-use plastics and when we don’t.

-Designing with recyclable materials in mind, and creating containers that can be washed and reused.

-Redesigning recycling systems to be more streamlined with reduced risks of infection for workers.

-Developing new technologies with the help of machine learning to better sort plastic and find ways to process “un-recyclable” materials.

-Not sidelining existing and new policies regarding plastic use during the pandemic and enforcing more responsible consumption.

-You can also wear reusable cloth masks, so as not to clog up our oceans with disposable masks.

We have been dealing with these environmental questions for a long time, and we shouldn’t forget them in these trying times. We could even learn to do things better.


See online artice for videos.