Over 25,000 tonnes of COVID-19 plastic waste entered the oceans in one year

A significant portion of this ocean plastic debris should end up on beaches or the seabed within 3 to 4 years, according to a study by Flags

More than 25,000 tonnes of plastics linked to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) entered the oceans from the start of the pandemic until August 2021, a recent study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) of the United States of America estimated.

The study showed that more than 8.4 million tonnes of plastic waste associated with a pandemic was generated in 193 countries, of which more than 25,000 tonnes was released into the ocean.

The study was led by a team of researchers from the School of Atmospheric Sciences at Nanjing University and the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California at San Diego.

Research has found that a significant portion of this ocean plastic debris is expected to end up on beaches or the seabed within three to four years.

He also found that hospital waste accounted for the bulk of global releases; most were from Asia.

Sources of plastic waste linked to the pandemic. Source: PNAS

The study noted that more than 95% of COVID-19 cases were found in North and South America (39.2%), Asia (31.2%) and Europe (25.7%) .

However, poorly managed plastic waste production did not follow the distribution of cases: most were produced in Asia (46%), Europe (24%) and North and South America (22%), with a cumulative contribution of 92%. percent of poorly managed plastic waste linked to the pandemic.

The researchers also simulated the fate of poorly managed plastic waste once it entered the oceans, using a model to assess its impact on the marine environment. The model takes into account the main processes that plastics undergo in seawater, such as drift, sedimentation, biofouling / de-fouling, abrasion and fragmentation.

The study then predicted the movement of plastic waste in natural conveyor belts from 2021 to 2100.

Destination of poorly managed plastic by the end of 2021. Source: PNAS

It also predicts that by the end of 2021, the number of confirmed cases will reach 280 million, generating nearly 11 million tonnes of plastic waste linked to the pandemic, which will result in a river discharge of 34,000 tonnes into the ocean. .

The study claimed that mismanaged plastic waste generation will be skewed towards Asia due to the record number of confirmed cases in India.

Uncertainties and assumptions

The study also admitted that there were substantial uncertainties with their estimates due to the lack of precise data.

The study made some assumptions, in particular around the percentage of plastic in the sources considered for the study: medical waste generated by hospitals, virus testing kits, PPE used by residents and online shopping packages. The percentage of plastic in each of the sources considered for the study was:

Origin of waste

Percentage of plastic in waste

Medical waste from hospitals


Virus screening kits


PPE kits used by residents


Online shopping packages


Source: PNAS

In India, medical waste is mainly separated into four different fractions, each of which must be treated separately. There is very little data to determine the percentage distribution of each of the streams.

The infectious fraction thrown into the yellow bag was around 60%, according to a January 2021 report submitted by the Central Pollution Control Board to the National Green Tribunal.

Although the percentage distribution of plastic (red bag), glass (blue bag) and sharps waste (white container) has not been specified, it can be said that the percentage of plastic waste in all medical waste generated would be lower for development and poor economies.

Another point to note is that the study assumed that the entire population of a country uses e-commerce to order essentials like food and daily necessities. While this may not be true even for developed countries, it is certainly not the case for developing countries like India where the internet user base is 40% and only 11%. of the population use electronic commerce for their daily needs.

The study made assumptions regarding the hospitalization of COVID-19 patients that may not be true for developing countries.

One of those assumptions is that all people infected with COVID-19 who need to be hospitalized have a hospital bed.

Poorly managed plastic and marine litter

The study took into account 369 major rivers and their watersheds on the marine litter front, which the authors said accounted for 91% of global releases of river plastic to the sea.

The 6 main streams for plastic waste discharges associated with a pandemic are:

Major rivers and their watersheds


Release of plastic waste linked to COVID-19 (in thousands of tonnes)

El-arabic cat






Yangtze river



Ganges Brahmaputra









Source: PNAS

The top 10 rivers accounted for 79% of pandemic plastic releases, the top 20 91%, and the top 100 99% of the total releases calculated by the study.

About 73 percent of discharges come from Asian rivers, followed by Europe at 11 percent.

Based on the data provided by the authors, we analyzed mismanaged plastic waste (MMPW) and plastic waste releases, by continent to arrive at mismanaged plastic waste per capita and releases per capita.

Continent MMPW (Kg) MMPW (tonnes) Discharge (Kg) Discharge (tonnes) Population MMPW per capita (kg / person) Flow per capita (kg / person)
Africa 1,845,379,000 1,845,379 3,835,600 3,835.6 1 332 312 893 1.3851 0.0029
Asia 1,242,145,000 1,242,145 4,614,000 4,614 4,563,493,348 0.2722 0.0010
Europe 1,157,863,000 1,157,863 227,500 227.5 750 788 468 1.5422 0.0003
North America 4,147,063,000 4,147,063 9 769 600 9 769.6 583 850 918 7.1029 0.0167
South America 2,481,175,000 2,481,175 6 323 200 6,323.2 430 461 090 5.7640 0.0147
Oceania 775,369,000 7.75,369 1,106,000 1 106 40 451 076 19.1681 0.0273

Source: PNAS

This analysis (above) showed that mismanaged plastic waste per capita and releases per capita were highest for Oceania, followed by North America and South America.

Poorly managed plastic waste and the lowest per capita releases per capita were for Europe, followed by Asia and finally Africa.

Wealthy Western countries have always been infamous for sending their plastic waste (mostly non-recyclable / economically unfeasible to recycle) to developing countries in Asia.

China was the largest recipient of plastic waste from developed countries, until it introduced its sword policy in 2017, which caps the level of contamination of plastic waste sent to the country.

After China’s political intervention, most of this plastic waste was diverted to Asian countries like Vietnam. This was made possible because developed countries have strict policies and oversight around plastic waste, which is sorely lacking in developing countries, especially Asia and Africa.

Bryce K. Locke