Articles

Waste in a Pandemic Time

Catarina Carvalho, Diana Narciso & Inês Andrade, Portugal, 19-21 years old

The increased production of plastic waste is a reality associated with the pandemic outbreak of COVID-19. It’s important to know the phenomenon and the consequences to find the solutions that can minimize the respective environmental impacts.

Facing the pandemic scenario due to COVID-19 everything has been subject to significant changes and waste production is no exception. First with the obligation, and now with the advice to stay at home, it is natural that the production of domestic waste increases, which is why it is important to look carefully at this phenomenon and what is the management of this waste. Will the management process remain the same in times of pandemic? Due to the appearance of this virus, new safety and hygiene measures were also necessary, which implied the increasing use of plastic, mainly disposable, resulting in a significant increase in waste of this type in the future. The question for which an answer is urgently needed is: – What to do about this problem?

Regarding waste management, still in a pre-pandemic period, in January 2020, the Minister of Environment and Climate Action, José Pedro Matos Fernandes, in an interview to the ECO newspaper, published in the “Green Capital” section, admitted that there has already been a substantial increase in waste production in residential areas and that the collection of undifferentiated waste should, whenever possible, be daily.

Domestic waste in pandemic times, especially plastics
(Source: Catarina Carvalho, 2020)

In March, already after the State of Emergency had been decreed, the newspaper Expresso reported that in Lisbon the door-to-door collection of plastic, glass, paper and carton packaging for recycling had already been suspended and that the waste would be sent to the respective sorting centres, where they were left in a kind of quarantine for an indefinite period of time, before proceeding to final treatment.

Following the guidelines of the Water and Waste Services Regulatory Authority and the Portuguese Environment Agency, published in various media, in case of infection all the waste produced should be placed in strong, disposable garbage bags then placed inside a second bag, properly closed, and be deposited in the undifferentiated waste container. The undifferentiated waste (the one that goes all mixed in the plastic bags) would go directly for disposal (incineration or landfill) because it could contain contaminated materials.

Regarding plastic waste, the high demand for protective equipment by governments and the general population has promoted a substantial increase in plastic production around the world.

According to the study “Environmental choices vs. COVID-19 pandemic fear – plastic governance re-assessment”, from Jaguelonian University (Krakow, Poland), in face of the growing health concerns due to this pandemic and its spread, environmental concerns and care tend to lose priority, with a regression in the reuse of packaging and an increase in the use of disposable packaging. Looking at the international situation, plastic (disposable in particular) has gained a new dimension mainly due to hygiene concerns and health risks.

Before this increased concern, because of the possibility of contamination, the concerted effort to reduce the production of some disposable plastic products, such as packages, cups and cutlery, was evident. Currently, due to restrictions in a pandemic period, there has been an increase in orders in the food sector, which also implies an increase in the use of bags, utensils and non-reusable plastic boxes. As a consequence of this increase and to ensure good food hygiene, taking into account the new coronavirus, the initial progress achieved by several companies in terms of reduction in plastics production has been cancelled out.

Considering information provided by RTP, some countries have been suspending restrictions on the use of plastics in order to prevent contagion by COVID-19. For example, in the United States, restaurant chains such as Starbucks have eliminated the use of reusable products as a safety measure and in the United Kingdom, taxes on plastic bags are not being charged.

Maria Elvira Callapez, researcher at the Faculty of Sciences of the University of Lisbon says that health professionals are now also forced to wear disposable plastic personal protective equipment, as they come into daily contact with infected people. In addition, hospital materials such as tubes, ventilators, laboratory materials and thermometers, which are mostly made of plastic, have increased daily.

The alarming growth in plastic production worldwide reinforces the public debate on the current environmental crisis, in which disposable plastic waste is considered the most harmful to the environment and to public health.

In order to turn this situation around, Joana Raposo Santos of RTP says measures can be taken to help reduce the production of plastic, such as: the use of community masks, duly certified, by citizens, instead of surgical masks, which should be reserved for health professionals and those who deal with infected people. Another important action is to correctly dispose of personal protective equipment in the garbage. In several countries images of worn masks and gloves have circulated through social networks and, if they are not quickly picked up and deposited in the garbage, they easily end up in the sewage system – especially if the rain drags them into the gutters – and end up in the oceans.

In the mentioned study, developed by a research group of the Jaguelonian University, at this time of pandemic, the model of plastic waste control has to be re-evaluated since, for safety and health reasons, the interested parts and the consumers are even more in need of disposable plastic materials than before. There are two possible options: (i) the decrease of the pandemic threat will lead to a return of attention to the impact of disposable plastics on the environment; or (ii) the experience of this sudden change will cause long-term environmental damage as the alarming growth of plastic waste and its impact on the environment will continue to be in the background.

This new challenge called COVID-19 requires adequate control in relation to waste generation in general and mainly plastic waste generation. It is essential that, although this is a health situation, the environment and sustainable practices are not forgotten, which is why it is important to monitor, observe and evaluate the evolution of this phenomenon.

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