Understanding the Environmental Impacts of COVID-19 Plastic Waste for Bioplastic Replacement

Hello there! My name is Ting Ting Li, and I am a rising sophomore at Northwestern University studying Biomedical Engineering. This summer, I have been working with 16 other students under Margaret MacDonell and the Responsible Innovation for bioPlastics in the Environment (RIPE) initiative in the Environmental Science Division (EVS) of Argonne National Laboratory. I have been focused on understanding the environmental impacts of plastic wastes that increased during the COVID-19 pandemic, notably personal protective equipment (PPE), as well as the potential for bioplastic replacements for these petroleum-based products, all written into a literature review.

Independent of the review publication, the purpose of RIPE is to develop a database and an environmental reference framework for plastics to allow developers to consider the end-of-life impacts of their material selections, as well as to promote bioplastic replacement. To do so, current literature was reviewed with relevant data extracted and synthesized for the database. The work I had done on COVID-19 plastic wastes informed one of several potential opportunities for the RIPE database to be used to support bioplastic replacements for conventional plastics, toward being available for future pandemics where PPE use and waste generation will dramatically increase again.

Sources of COVID-19 Plastics

During the pandemic, there has been increased consumption of single-use plastics in various sectors, including in healthcare, and in the general public. These increases can be attributed to both governmental mandates, as well as consumer fears. The implementation of mask mandates and lockdowns worldwide have led to the increase in PPE use, as well as an increase in deliveries using single-use food packaging and utensils. Furthermore, as variants develop with higher transmission, consumer fears have led to a phenomenon of “functional fear,” including increased preventative behaviors, such as wearing face masks. The main plastics that have experienced these increases are depicted in Figure 1 below, although this is not an exhaustive list. Note that limitations in current literature led me to focus on the impacts of face mask and shields. These are composed mainly of polypropylene (PP), polyethylene (PE), and polyvinyl chloride (PVC).

Figure 1: Main Sources of COVID-19 Plastic Wastes 

COVID-19 Plastic Waste Management Crisis 

Current literature utilizes different methods to estimate these values using parameters that account for face mask acceptance rate and economically active populations, to name a few. Regardless, estimates indicate that daily waste generation from face masks has reached 1 million tons worldwide. With 32% of plastic waste mismanaged and leaked into the environment prior to the pandemic, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, the large scale of plastic waste now poses a significant threat to the environment. To make matters worse, fears about outbreaks and the transmission of the virus have led to the shutdowns of recycling facilities worldwide. As a result, most of the COVID-19 plastic wastes generated are sent to a landfill or incinerated, with residues remaining in the ash. In addition, a substantial amount of PPE is simply discarded (or leaked) as litter. Environmental impacts of these disposition paths could harm the environment, including through the release of chemicals that can contaminate water and soil, as well as enter into the food chain.  

Environmental Impact of COVID-19 Plastic Waste 

Depending on how long a waste plastic has been in the environment, it might exist as macroplastics or microplastics – which have been present longer and have undergone further degradation processes. Figure 2 details some of the environmental impacts of PPE macroplastics and microplastics. These waste plastics can potentially harm ecological and human health. Most face masks are made from nonbiodegradable plastics, and in addition to producing microplastics over time, plastic products can contain chemical additives that can be toxic at certain exposure levels. 

Figure 2: Environmental Impacts of Macroplastic and Microplastic PPE 

In addition to these environmental impacts, there are additional concerns about climate change emissions and fossil fuel depletion since most single-use plastics are derived from fossil fuels. The opportunity exists to replace petroleum-based plastics with bioplastics, and further to pursue plastics that are biodegradable at their end of life.  

Conclusion 

The next steps for this research includes exploring the current endeavors for bioplastic replacement of PPE, as well as investigating potential bioplastic materials. Several considerations need to be made regarding developing bioplastic face masks, including standards, breathability, and electrospinning abilities. From this, I am eager to investigate the exciting applications of the RIPE database to promote a circular economy that reduces the generation of plastic waste.