A new study has estimated that more than 250,000 tonnes of PPE and Covid-related plastics have entered the oceans.

Californian researchers developed a computer program that simulates the fate and movement of plastic waste. 

They estimate that 8.4 million tons of pandemic-related plastic waste has been generated by 193 countries, from the start of the pandemic to August 2021.   

Almost three quarters – 71 per cent – is likely to wash up on beaches by the end of the year, the model suggests.  

Most of the offending Covid-related plastic is from medical waste generated by hospitals, the researchers say, which ‘dwarfs’ the contribution from PPE and packaging from online shopping giant like Amazon and eBay.  

Covid-19 led to an increased demand for single-use plastics such as face masks, gloves, and face shields. But much of the resulting waste ends up in rivers and oceans, researchers warn

Covid-19 resulted in a rise in demand for single-use plastics like face masks and gloves. Researchers warn that rivers and oceans are home to a lot of this waste.


Face masks

Protect your face with face shields

– Disposable gloves

– Surgery gowns


Hand soap bottles 

–  Test kits


The term PPE refers to surgical gowns, disposable gloves, and masks. PPE includes all plastic packaging and plastic used in the manufacture of these products.

If properly disposed off, all can travel to the oceans and into rivers.  

A team of researchers from Nanjing University and UC San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography led the new study. Data from 2020, when the pandemic began, to 2021. 

In their paper, they state: “Plastic waste has been found to be a significant environmental threat to marine life.”

“The Covid-19 Pandemic caused an increase in demand for single-use plastics, intensifying the pressure on this out-of control problem.

According to this work, more than 8,000,000 tons of pandemic related plastic waste were generated worldwide. Additionally, more than 250,000 tons have entered the global ocean.  

It is thought that this is a problem long-lasting for the ocean ecosystem and is most commonly found along beaches and in coastal sediments.    

Covid-related plastic includes masks, face shields, test kits, disposable gloves, surgical gowns and any plastic packaging used to contain these items (stock image)

Covid-related plastics include masks, face shields (stock photo), test kits, disposable gloves and surgical gowns.

According to Yanxu Zhang, a study author at Nanjing University, the group created a virtual reality model for their research. It was based on Newton’s laws of motion.  

Zhang said that the model “simulated how seawater flows driven by wind” and showed how plastics floated on ocean surface, and degraded from sunlight and plankton. 

‘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?’

Graphic from the paper shows the different types of pandemic-associated plastics discharged to the global ocean - (A) hospital medical waste, (B) Covid-19 test kits, (C) PPE, (D) online-shopping packaging material and (E) all of them in total

The paper’s graphic shows how different pandemic-associated plastics are being released to the ocean. (A) Hospital medical waste; (B) Covid-19 testing kits; (C) PEPE and (D) packaging material for online shopping. (E) All of them together

This study revealed that the majority of plastic waste generated by the pandemic was entering the oceans from rivers. 


Covid-19 in the population 

Africa: 3.8 per cent

Asia: 31.2 per cent 

Europe: 25.7 per cent

North America: 21.9 per cent

South America: 17.3 per cent

Oceania: Less Than 0.1%

Covid related plastics waste is’mismanaged’

Africa: 7.9 per cent

Asia: 46.3 per cent 

Europe: 23.8 per cent

North America: 5.6 per cent

South America: 16.4 per cent

Oceania: Less Than 0.1%

Notice: All percentages refer to the global total 

73% of total plastics discharges from Asian rivers are in Asia, the three largest contributors being Indus and Shatt Al-Arab. 

European rivers contribute 11 percent of the discharge. Other continents make minor contributions.

Researchers also examined the Covid cases against Covid-related waste plastic that flows into rivers. This was separated by continent. 

Asia accounted for the greatest total for both – 31.2 per cent of the world’s Covid cases and 46.3 per cent of the world’s Covid-related plastic waste.

According to the authors, this is due to the fact that there are fewer Covid cases in developing countries like India and China than in developed nations in North America or Europe.  

“When we did the math we were shocked to discover that medical waste was significantly higher than that of individuals and that a lot was coming from Asian countries even though this is not the location of most Covid-19 cases,” said Amina Schartup, Scripps Oceanography study co-author. 

“The largest sources of excessive waste in the area were hospitals that had been struggling to manage waste before the pandemic. They just didn’t have the infrastructure necessary to deal with a situation like this.       

More than eight million tons of pandemic-associated plastic waste have been generated globally, the researchers estimate. Although face masks may not be thought of by some as plastic, they do feature a layer of non-woven bonded fabric to filter microorganisms from the mouth and nose – commonly made of polypropylene, a type of polymer

The researchers estimated that more than 8 million tonnes of pandemic-related plastic waste has been produced worldwide. Although face masks may not be thought of by some as plastic, they do feature a layer of non-woven bonded fabric to filter microorganisms from the mouth and nose – commonly made of polypropylene, a type of polymer

According to the researchers, ocean plastic debris will likely settle on beaches within three to four year. 

A smaller portion will go into the open ocean, eventually to be trapped in the centres of ocean basins or subtropical ‘gyres’ – large systems of rotating currents in each of the five major oceans.

Unfortunately, the world’s five subtropical gyres can go on to host garbage patches, comprised of PPE, litter, fishing gear and other debris.

According to the team, plastic waste transported into the Arctic Ocean is largely dead-end due to its ocean circulation patterns.  

Subtropical 'gyres' are large systems of rotating currents in each of the five major oceans. Due to the currents' movement, rubbish can accumulate within them

Subtropical “gyres” are systems that rotate currents through each of five oceans. They can collect rubbish due to their movement


According to a 2020 study, the Atlantic Ocean may contain 200 million tonnes of plastic pollution. This is 10 times greater than any previous estimations.

Scientists examined the uppermost surface of the Atlantic on a British research expedition and found 12 million tonnes of microplastics – plastic particles less than 5 millimetres in diameter. 

They then estimated that the Atlantic Ocean’s entire surface and seabed would be carrying an additional 178 million tonnes plastic. 

Just one million tonnes is approximately the same weight as 76,000 double-decker London buses.  

Read more: ’10 times more plastic’ in Atlantic Ocean than previously thought

Due to its harsh environment, high climate change sensitivity and vulnerability to extreme weather conditions, the Arctic ecosystem has been identified as being particularly fragile. 

‘There is a pretty consistent circulation pattern in the ocean, and that’s why we can build models that replicate how the ocean moves – it’s just physical oceanography at this point,’ said Schartup. 

‘We know that if waste is released from Asian rivers into the North Pacific Ocean, some of that debris will likely end up in the Arctic Ocean – a kind of a circular ocean which can be a bit like an estuary, accumulating all kinds of things that get released from the continents.’

This model indicates that approximately 80 percent of plastic waste that passes into the Arctic Ocean is likely to sink.  

The authors call for improved management of medical waste at epicenters in order to reduce the amount of plastic waste entering the oceans. This is especially important in the developing world.

These calls also require that the public be aware of the negative environmental effects of PPE, and encourage development of environmentally-friendly materials. 

A second approach is to develop ‘innovative technologies’ for improved plastic waste collection and classification. 

Public members can help by recycling and disposing responsibly of Covid-related refuse.  

This study is published in Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences today.


1. Hand Sanitizer vs. Soap

In 2020, global demand for hand sanitiser was high. But the 70% alcohol gel (which kills both bacteria and viruses including COVID-19) is often packaged in plastic bottles.

Consider switching to warm soap with soap bar for your hand washing. This will help reduce the amount of plastic you use. 

Many bars of soap come in biodegradable packaging which makes them much more eco-friendly than hand sanitizers. 

Another option is liquid soap, which can be easily refilled. This will allow you to decrease your plastic use without having to make major lifestyle adjustments.

The government recommends that you wash your hands as often as possible to reduce the chance of becoming ill.

2. Washable vs Disposable Masks

UCL researchers have found that one-use disposable masks would cause 66,000 tons of plastic pollution in Britain every year. They also create 10 times the climate change impacts than those made from reusable ones.

Single-use protective clothing such as gloves and masks can be contaminated in a hospital setting. There are safe disposal systems that include segregation or incineration.

The highest protection against COVID-19 infection is provided by N95 surgical respirators. Next are surgical grade masks. 

There is evidence that disposable masks are more effective than single-use masks, and they don’t produce as much waste. 

Reusable material masks are a good eco-friendly choice, as long as you wash them after every use.

3. Comparison of Plastic bags and Material

The government passed new legislation in October 2015 to reduce plastic bag use in the UK. 

Plastic bags have declined in Britain since that time. 

However, the coronavirus has led to more people using disposable bags. Several states have banned reusable bags completely in several US states.

Whilst the evidence is still unclear about how long COVID-19 can live on clothing, Vincent Munster, from the National Institutes of Health told the BBC that the NIH speculates ‘it desiccates rapidly’ on porous materials. 

It is best to not throw out reusable bags. Make sure they are cleaned regularly, and that anyone coming in contact with them washes their hands.

4. Reusables or Coffee Cups

In recent years, plastic-free activists have focused a lot on coffee cups. 

Many coffee shops are now able to open again, despite the lockdown restrictions. 

Many large coffee shops that used reusable cups have stopped accepting them due to safety concerns.

More than 100 academics, scientists and doctors have supported the safe use of reusable containers despite widespread concern. They are unlikely to increase the spread of COVID-19. 

You should wash your reusable cups with soap and hot water.

5. Getaway pint glasses vs. #PlasticFreePints

Many pubs were reopening at weekends, and many used plastic cups to help take-out orders.

Similar to the reusable cups for coffee, the reuse glass and tumbler can be used to wash your cup thoroughly. This will help reduce the coronavirus-related waste.

Ours to Save is a global news platform that provides information on climate change. EcoDisco is a sustainability events company. The #PlasticFreePints initiative encourages pub-goers to choose reusable options to replace single-use plastic. 

Source: Money.co.uk