Ocean Plastics

26,000 tonnes of Covid plastic waste in seas, study finds

Written by Oceanographic Staff

A study by researchers at the University of California predicts where Covid plastic waste will most likely end up in the oceans.

The increased use of plastic gloves and non-reusable masks due to the pandemic means that many of these items will end up in nature and the oceans. A new study, led by a team of researchers at Nanjing University’s School of Atmospheric Sciences and UC San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography, sheds a light on the extent of this issue.

By using a specifically developed ocean plastic numerical model, the study which was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that over eight million tonnes of pandemic-related plastic waste has been generated globally, while around 25,900 tonnes of plastic Covid-19 waste will leak into the ocean.

Yanxu Zhang, the corresponding author and a professor at the School of Atmospheric Sciences at Nanjing University, explained that the specifically designed model “simulates how the seawater moves driven by wind and how the plastics float on the surface ocean, degraded by sunlight, fouled by plankton, landed on beaches, and sunk to the deep. It can be used to answer ‘what if’ questions, for example, what will happen if we add a certain amount of plastics to the ocean?”

While most of the global waste is hospital-generated medical waste, personal protection items and online-shopping package material comes close sedond. The study found that within three to four years, the majority of Covid waste will end up on beaches or on the seabed, with a smaller portion remaining in the open ocean where it will eventually be trapped in ocean basin centres.

The main reason for the pollution is the mismanagement of plastic waste by most countries, researchers pointed out. Yiming Peng and Peipei Wu from Nanjing University, the authors of the study, said: “The Covid-19 pandemic has led to an increased demand for single-use plastics that intensifies pressure on an already out-of-control global plastic waste problem. The released plastics can be transported over long distances in the ocean, encounter marine wildlife, and potentially lead to injury or even death.”

The study further highlights the importance of rivers and watersheds in plastic waste management as it found that most of the pandemic’s global plastic waste enters the ocean from rivers. While Asian rivers account for 73 per cent of the total plastic discharge, European rivers account for 11 per cent.

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Photography courtesy of Unsplash.

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