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Usage and the recyclability of various types of plastics during the COVID-19 pandemic

Views: 47 Author: WJM Publish Time: Origin: WJM

With the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), a pandemic of global concern caused by severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), the entire world has come to a halt witnessing a lifestyle that is becoming the new normal. SARS-CoV-2 is known to be easily transmissible from one person to another (sustaining the median incubation period of approximately 5.1 days), infecting on an average of 2.4–3.3 people from just one confirmed case (Lauer et al., 2020Ortiz-Prado et al., 2020). The COVID-19 crisis has reemphasized the indispensable role of plastic in our daily life. Plastics have contributed immensely to the healthcare sector and public health safety during the pandemic. In addition to the imposition of nationwide lockdown, social distancing, restriction on traveling and public gathering, frequent usage of hand sanitizers along with wearing of mostly plastic-based personal protective equipment (PPEs), viz. face masks, gloves for common citizens to protective medical suits, aprons, gowns, face shields, surgical masks, and other PPEs for frontline health workers as precautionary measures have been adopted to avoid virus contamination to fight the spread of COVID-19 (Kahlert and Bening, 2020). Plastics integrate excellent strength to weight ratio and durability with versatileness. Owing to these properties, plastics are irreplaceable in the healthcare sector with major applications in single-use medical tools and equipment and packaging along with use in some surgical operation and transplant (Chen et al., 2020). Further, plastics have evolved as the perfect material for packaging purposes as they are lightweight, flexible, and highly durable. Packaging applications account for the most extensive use of plastics worldwide. Consumers' behavioral changes coupled with the dependency on online shopping and takeaway services for home delivery of essential items during the pandemic have led to a considerably increased demand for plastic-based packaging items, including single-use plastics (SUPs), against the backdrop of prevailing bans or restrictions in many countries (Grashuis et al., 2020Laato et al., 2020Tenenbaum, 2020Wang et al., 2020a). A surge in the plastic demand during the pandemic is, therefore, primarily due to the manufacturing of PPEs and packaging materials (ADB, 2020). The majority of PPEs are made up of polymers like polyurethane (PU), polypropylene (PP), polycarbonate (PC), low-density polyethylene (LDPE), polyvinyl chloride (PVC), while the plastics used in packaging materials mainly consist of high-density polyethylene (HDPE), low-density polyethylene (LDPE), polystyrene (PS), polyethylene terephthalate (PET), etc. Among these, PS and LDPE are rarely recycled plastics, PET and HDPE are widely recycled, while PVC and PP are often not recycled (Klemeš et al., 2020). The usage and recyclability of the plastics used for PPEs and packaging materials during the pandemic are depicted in Fig. 1.

Fig. 1

Fig. 1. Usage and the recyclability of various types of plastics during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Plastics bring prosperity to mankind, but also limitations and problems as their prime advantage turns out to be the main problem. Being cheaper than conventional materials, plastics allow single-use in innumerable applications with disposability is considered as a major advantage by the users prioritizing hygiene, albeit plastic is reported to be no better alternative than other materials with respect to the persistence of the novel coronavirus (van Doremalen et al., 2020). This has led to an increase in the use and disposal of plastic-based items for both medical and non-medical applications during the pandemic. Hazardous COVID-19 biomedical waste (BMW) containing infected plastic-based PPEs and other disposable items from the impacted sources like COVID-19 hospitals, quarantined facilities, containment zones, along with similar non-infected items from non-impacted sources are generated (UNEP, 2020). Therefore, the COVID-19 BMW generation can be directly linked to the unprecedented use of mostly plastic-based PPEs and other disposables warranted since the novel coronavirus outbreak. The growing usage of SUPs and plastic-based packaging materials coupled with the increasing demand for medical products and packaging amid the pandemic has significantly spiked the plastic waste generation worldwide (Jribi et al., 2020WEF, 2020WHO-UNICEF, 2020). Thus, the pandemic has presented a major environmental challenge in terms of plastic waste management. Waste management facilities are generally designed for steady-state operations with moderate variations in waste volume and composition under normal circumstances. However, the pandemic-induced change in waste generation and composition dynamics is highly likely to impact the normal operation of the existing facilities. Further, the reduction in plastic recycling due to plummeting oil and petroleum prices in view of reduced transportation activities in the time of pandemic-induced lockdowns has turned plastic waste management a huge challenge (BIR, 2020Eco-Business, 2020Kaufman and Chasan, 2020). During this unprecedented uncertainty, the consumption of different PPEs and packaging materials, including SUPs, is on the threshold of creating a plastic pandemic across the globe unless effectively managed (Fadare and Okoffo, 2020Hale and Song, 2020). Mismanagement and littering of plastic waste may not only pose a risk of virus transmission but also create pollution in terrestrial and marine ecosystems (Mol and Caldas, 2020).

The general perception of the society to consider plastic as an evil polluter has been further built up based on the media reports and newsletters highlighting the worsened environmental situation due to the mismanaged plastic waste during the COVID-19 pandemic. Contrary to this general viewpoint, the irresponsible and negligent attitude of the consumers in sheer mismanagement and the underutilization of the resource are the major catalysts contributing and aggravating plastic pollution (Aragaw, 2020Borg, 2020). Notably, PPEs and other plastic-based medical equipment have emerged as a life-savior for protecting the health and safety of the frontline health workers and the common citizens in the time of the pandemic. However, an equitable appraisal is needed comparing all pros and cons of plastics, their management or mismanagement, and fate in the environment during the COVID-19 pandemic. In this context, the article reviews and assesses to dwell upon whether plastics in the time of pandemic are acting as protector of the public health or polluter of the environment. For the purpose of the review and the assessment, the pandemic-induced repercussions on global plastic production and usage emerging out of PPEs demand and supply, online shopping and takeaway services as well as provisional reversal or stay of SUPs bans is highlighted. Further, the impacts of the pandemic on the global plastic waste generation and associated critical issues and challenges of plastic waste management system are analyzed. The article also adds up to the current literature presenting various guidelines and advisories issued by several international agencies and countries for plastic waste management in view of the pandemic. Moreover, the fate of plastic in the hour of the pandemic to dissect plausible short- and long-term ecological repercussions is discussed. The article also presents an assessment of different decontamination methods to reprocess and reuse PPEs to safeguard the shortage of their supply chain in commensurate with the increased demand across the globe. At last, future implications concerning innovative technical solutions and safer practices together with robust policies are presented to support legislative bodies and policymakers to deal with the current challenges of plastic waste management during the pandemic and beyond.


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