In brief

The COVID-19 pandemic has increased the amount of plastic waste generated, particularly medical waste from masks and other disposables.

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Minimizing our plastic waste footprint

30 Jul 2020

COVID-19 has catalyzed radical changes in our relationship with single-use plastic, according to a study by an international team of researchers.

COVID-19 continues to devastate communities around the world, with the number of confirmed cases globally crossing the fifteen-million mark. Meanwhile, experts have revealed another unexpected victim of the pandemic: the environment.

As case numbers began to swell, so did the demand for personal protective equipment as a means of limiting the spread of the virus. This, in turn, led to a surge in the volume of medical plastic waste generated, particularly for products used for personal protection and in clinical settings.

In China, for example, the coronavirus outbreak saw a 30 percent dip in solid waste generated by households, but a simultaneous spike in medical waste by a whopping 370 percent in Hubei Province, much of which consists of single-use plastic.

Together with an international team of scientists from the Sustainable Process Integration Laboratory at Brno University of Technology (VUT Brno), Czech Republic, and De La Salle University, the Philippines, Peng Jiang from the Department of Systems Science at A*STAR’s Institute of High Performance Computing (IHPC) has now mapped some of the potential negative and positive environmental shifts caused by COVID-19, specifically in the management of plastic waste.

“Management of the coronavirus requires single-use plastic, even if disposability is largely an environmental liability. We are witnessing a ‘butterfly effect’ caused by COVID-19 that has led to significant impacts on the environment,” the researchers said.

In their study, the authors hypothesize that though ambitious, reducing the environmental burden in the wake of a global health crisis remains possible, given the right combination of plastic use measurement, monitoring and management.

Their study explores six possible strategies that countries can take to respond to the COVID-19 clean-up. Among them, the authors propose a new concept—the plastic waste footprint, or PWFP, which is a tool for measuring and communicating the environmental footprint of a plastic product throughout its life cycle.

By providing a simple and direct means of understanding the environmental burden of a disposable face mask, for example, people can be better informed to make more sustainable choices, the research team noted.

While there are no quick fixes when it comes to protecting Mother Earth from the lingering consequences of plastic waste, the authors believe that metrics such as PWFP can aid policymaking and public engagement around sustainability issues.

“One major challenge is changing the perceptions and behaviors of consumers. We created metrics such as the plastic waste footprint of a product to provide a way of effectively communicating abstract environmental burdens to non-specialists,” the researchers said.

The team is now planning to conduct future studies to extend their proposed plastic management framework across countries, taking into account cultural, economic and geographical factors that may influence policy outcomes. This study was funded by the Czech Republic Operational Programme Research and Development, Education (project number: CZ.02.1.01/0.0/0.0/15 003/0000456).

The A*STAR-affiliated researcher contributing to this research is from the Institute of High Performance Computing (IHPC).

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Klemeš, J. J., Fan, Y. V., Tan, R. R., Jiang, P. Minimising the present and future plastic waste, energy and environmental footprints related to COVID-19. Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews 127, 109883 (2020) | article

About the Researcher

Peng Jiang received his PhD degree in 2018 from Shanghai Jiao Tong University, where he investigated machine learning models and sustainable urban development. In 2020, he joined the A*STAR Institute of High Performance Computing (IHPC) as a scientist, where he is currently working on system modeling and big urban data analytics.

This article was made for A*STAR Research by Wildtype Media Group