COVID-19 pandemic repercussions on the use and
management of (micro)plastics
Joana C. Prata*1‡, Ana L.P. Silva2‡, Tony R. Walker3‡, Armando C. Duarte1, Teresa Rocha-
1 Centre for Environmental and Marine Studies (CESAM) & Department of Chemistry,
University of Aveiro, 3810-193 Aveiro, Portugal
2 Centre for Environmental and Marine Studies (CESAM) & Department of Biology, University
of Aveiro, 3810-193 Aveiro, Portugal
3 School for Resource and Environmental Studies, Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia,
B3H 4R2, Canada
KEYWORDS: Microplastics; Plastics; Single-Use Plastics; Personal Protective Equipment
(PPE), COVID-19; SARS-CoV-2
ABSTRACT: Plastics are essential in society as a widely available and inexpensive material.
Mismanagement of personal protective equipment (PPE) during COVID-19 pandemic, with a
monthly estimated use of 129 billion face masks and 65 billion gloves globally, is resulting in
widespread environmental contamination. This poses a risk to public health as a vector for
SARS-CoV-2 virus, which survives up to 3 days on plastics, as well as impacts to ecosystems
and organisms more broadly functions. Concerns over the role of reusable plastics as vectors for
SARS-CoV-2 virus contributed to the reversal of bans on single-use plastics, highly supported by
the plastic industry. While not underestimating the importance of plastics in the prevention of
COVID-19 transmission, it is imperative not to undermine recent progress made in the
sustainable use of plastics. There is a need to assess alternatives that allow reductions of PPE and
reinforce awareness on the proper public use and disposal. Finally, assessment of contamination
and impacts of (micro)plastics driven by the pandemic will be required once the outbreak ends.
Plastics revolutionized the modern world, contributing to great improvements in health through
food safety and disposable medical equipment. Their use in medicine as disposables allowed to
reduce the risk of the transmission of blood-borne pathogens as well as reduce expenses with
material cleaning and sterilization 1. Plastics now have a multitude of applications, with global
production reaching 359 million tons in 2018 2. However, indiscriminate use and waste
mismanagement have led to widespread environmental contamination of plastics. Over 5 trillion
plastic pieces are afloat in the world’s oceans 3, with an estimated annual contribution from
plastic waste transported by rivers of 1.2 - 2.4 million tons 4. The persistence, irreversibility and
ubiquity of plastics in the environment, as well as potential effects on ecological communities
and ecosystem functioning, have led to their characterization as a planetary boundary threat 5.
Under environmental conditions, plastics may progressively fragment into pieces under 5 mm,
known as microplastics, which Microplastics (<5 mm), originating from intentional production
(primary) or by progressive fragmentation under environmental conditions (secondary), are of
special concern due to their small sizes and ubiquity which allowings interaction with a larger
number of organisms and hinderings environmental recovery 6.
The novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2), the agent of COVID-19, first arose in Wuhan, Hubei
Province, China, in late December 2019, likely originating from an animal source and causing
acute respiratory distress syndrome 7. In March 11th, 2020, the WHO Director-General declared
the COVID-19 could now be characterized as a pandemic as 118,000 infected were then spread
over 114 countries 8. The use of personal protective equipment (PPE) became essential to prevent
the infection of frontline healthcare workers treating asymptomatic and symptomatic patients and
to allow continued functioning of national healthcare systems 9. WHO estimated the monthly
needs of PPE for healthcare professionals as 89 million medical masks, 76 million gloves, 1.6
million goggles 10. However, public concerns over this highly contagious virus has also increased
the use of PPE by the general public in an attempt to contain the transmission, which remains
unquantified at a global scale. For Italy alone, a country with 60.4 million inhabitants 11,
estimated monthly needs of PPE for the population during deconfinement is estimated to be 1
billion face masks and 0.5 billion gloves per month 12. A similar consumption worldwide, in 7.8
billion inhabitants 13, would result in a monthly consumption of 129 billion face masks and 65
billion gloves. The widespread and indiscriminate use of masks has been controversial, as
Western governments recommended against its use due to shortage, lack of evidence for
protection, lack of correct handling and disposal, and the false sense of security which may
increase risky behaviors 14. However, some scientists advise for the reconsideration of this
measure arguing that mass masking may play a role in reducing the transmission of the novel
coronavirus 15. Since then, the use of face covering or face masks by the public in public spaces
has been recommended or even enforced 16,17.
Concerns about incorrect disposal by the public were not unfounded, as used gloves and masks
can now be found littering public spaces (Figure 1). This potentially infectious litter will persist
in the environment, potentially fragmenting into microplastics, unless properly collected and
disposed of, as it mainly consists of plastics. Single-use face masks are made of plastics, such as
polypropylene, polyurethane or polyacrylonitrile, with classifications based on filtration capacity
varying in E.U. from FFP1 (80%), to FFP2 (94%), and FFP3 (99%), and in the U.S. from N95
(95%), to N99 (99%), and N100 (100%) 18. The recommended N95 masks, capable of filtering
air particulates <0.3 µm by 95%, are made of plastics such as polypropylene and polyethylene
terephthalate. Similarly, other disposable PPE, such as surgical gowns and masks, are made of
nonwoven materials (e.g., spunbond meltblown spunbond) often incorporating polyethylene,
polypropylene and polyethylene terephthalate 19. Therefore, use and mismanagement of medical
waste by the public motivated by the COVID-19 pandemic are is contributing to the increasing
plastic contamination. Carried by wind, streams, rivers and currents, these plastics have the
potential to spread across the globe 20, and under effects of environmental conditions, break
down into microplastics 6. Due to persistence of plastics in the environment, PPE residues from
the COVID-19 pandemic will likely be a common debris item found in the environment for
decades, potentially affecting biota at different environmental compartments and biological
Figure 1. Environmental contamination caused by improper disposal of personal protection
equipment motivated by COVID-19 in Portugal (A), Hong Kong (B), and Canada (C) (Photo
credits: A, José Amaro; B, Gary Stokes; C, Justine Ammendolia).
However, considering the current scenario of pandemic, the role of plastics as vectors of diseases
has raised academic and public awareness and the attention of national and international
regulatory authorities 21. Plastic debris are known to adsorb organic and inorganic nutrients from
the environment, thus providing a relatively stable habitat for pathogenic bacteria and/or viruses
such as SARS-type, enhancing their diffusivity 22. Indeed, preliminary research on SARS-CoV-2
virus persistence on everyday surfaces in households or hospital settings revealed viable units in
plastic items or surfaces up to 72 hours after direct contamination 23. The persistence of SARS-
COV-2 virus on plastic debris may likely increase if the environmental conditions are favorable.
The use of disposable plastics to reduce SARS-CoV-2 transmission can, therefore, turn into a
threat to public health when considering the uncontrolled disposal of PPE. Although
transmission route for SARS-CoV-2 occurs mainly by person-to-person contact or via
respiratory droplets, contact with surfaces (fomites) can pose an alternative route of exposure to
the virus 24,25. Contaminated plastic waste can pose a risk which should be carefully addressed as
a possible route of transmission. For instance, the avian influenza virus (H6N2) inactivation rate
ranged from 30 to >600 days in landfill leachates, remaining infective during that period 26.
Inactivation rate for SARS-CoV-2 is not yet known. Exposure to this virus through waste is
especially relevant as an occupational risk for garbage collectors and other operators involved in
waste management. Even though evidence is still lacking for SARS-CoV-2 27, handling of
contaminated waste has been found to be a risk factor for families caring for MERS-CoV
patients 28. COVID-19 viral RNA has also been found to contaminate numerous surfaces,
including trash cans 29, and face masks could harbor infectious SARS-CoV-2 up to 7 days 30,
potentially remaining infectious even after disposal. Contamination could result from the
presence of bodily secretions, contact with soiled hands, or spread through aerosol particles 31.
The large survival time on objects suggests that waste produced by infected individuals could
present viable SARS-CoV-2 32. Thus, waste should be considered infectious and properly
disposed and handled during the current pandemic 27.In addition to the potential for spreading
SARS-CoV-2, plastic waste accumulation during the COVID-19 pandemic may threaten public
health in other ways. For instance, plastic debris may increase the spread of antibiotic resistance
genes and bacteria in the environment, especially through wastewater 28. The accumulation of
high levels of plastic waste can also provide breeding grounds for vectors of zoonotic diseases,
such as mosquito Aedes spp. which is the vector of dengue and Zika and can reproduce in
puddles in plastic waste 31. The accumulation of large amounts of plastic debris can also increase
the flood risk in urban areas 32. These concerns are greater in low- and middle- income countries
which lack protective strategies and/or financial support for adequate waste management
practices and procedures during COVID-19 pandemic period (e.g., PPE for employees and waste
reclaimers, waste and wastewater treatment infrastructures).
The potential infectious threat triggered by urban waste, including PPE residues, have
stimulated the release of recommendations by entities responsible for regulating national waste
management. For instance, the Portuguese Environmental Agency released guidelines which
recommends all potentially contaminated domestic residues to be disposed of as mixed wastes
(not recyclables) in sealed and leak-proof garbage bags, including used PPE, while the collection
of waste must be reinforced as well as preferential treatment by incineration, and if not possible,
by daily landfilling 33. The plastic recycling industry is also being impacted by reduced
separation of waste and recycling collection 34. In healthcare contexts, medical waste is expected
to be correctly disposed of. Disposal of infectious medical waste through incineration under high
temperatures, ensuring sterilization, followed by landfilling of residual ash is the primary method
used in developed nations 35. This disposal method is, so far, one of the best solutions to protect
public health from infectious wastes despite drawbacks of incineration, such as investment in
infrastructure and need for strict control of gas emissions 36. While often made of plastics,
disposable medical equipment and PPE are required for the preservation of public health,
especially during a pandemic. Recommended or not by health agencies, there is a need to
recognize the use of PPE by the general public. To prevent subsequent environmental problems,
there is a need to reinforce proper disposal of used PPE in sealed garbage bags and highlight the
problems of not doing so. Indeed, mismanaged PPE can contribute to global plastic
contamination but also act as potential vectors of the COVID-19 disease.
Concerns over the survival of the virus on contaminated surfaces have also led to the reversal
of policies to reduce single-use plastics in some jurisdictions. For example, several states in the
U.S. have recently rescinded or delayed plastic bag bans amid coronavirus fears. In New York,
the state-wide ban went into effect on March 1, 2020, but was delayed to May 15, 2020 as courts
effectively closed due to the implementation of COVID-19 social distancing measures 37. In
Massachusetts, the Mayor of Boston agreed to the re-introduction of plastic bags for retailers that
qualify as essential businesses under a state executive order. Subsequently, the Massachusetts
Food Administration urged the Governor of Massachusetts to rescind bans on plastic bags and to
announce a ban on reusable shopping bags due to potential health threats to grocery store
workers 38. New Hampshire also announced a temporary ban on reusable bags during the
COVID-19 outbreak and requirement for the use of single-use plastic or paper bags in retail
stores 39. Additionally, Maine delayed the ban on single-use plastic bags from April 22, 2020, to
January 15, 2021, in order to combat the spread of COVID-19. In California, suspended fees on
single-use plastic bags and approved a pause in the redemption of beverage containers in stores
for 2 months, starting on the 23th
of April 40, with the city of San Francisco banning the use of
reusable items in stores, including reusable bags 41. Fees or bans on single-use plastic have been
postponed or suspended in Philadelphia 42, Connecticut 43, Hawaii 44, Oregon45, and Delaware46.
Similarly, in the UK a 5 p fee over plastic bags has been lifted for online deliveries 47 and bans
on plastic straws, cotton buds and stirrers have been delayed by six months 48. Bans on single-use
plastics have also been delayed in Canada and in South Australia 49. In Italy, a 450 €/t tax on
virgin plastics was postponed until 2021 50, and Scotland delayed its deposit return scheme until
202251. Likewise, private companies may prioritize the use of single-use plastics due to safety
concerns. For instance, the coffee chain Starbucks has temporarily banned reusable cups 52, while
Illinois grocery stores are banning the use of reusable bags 53.
Rescinding or pre-emptively enacting laws to ban plastic reduction legislation from being
implemented is not uncommon in the U.S., which is often triggered by plastic industry lobbyists
quoting food safety and hygiene concerns 53. For example, in Canada, the Canadian Plastics
Industry Association (CPIA) has frequently touted single-use plastic bags and other plastic
packaging as being hygienically superior or requiring fewer resources during production
compared to reusable alternatives. However, CPIA arguments to support the widespread use of
single-use plastic bags for food and consumer safety are often based on studies funded they
themselves (see 54). Despite recent calls to reverse bans on plastic bags during the COVID-19
pandemic, no peer-reviewed studies have yet been published that document higher risks from
using reusable compared to single-use plastic bags (e.g. higher viral load). Viable SARS-CoV-2
virus persist longer on plastic surfaces than other materials, such as cardboard 23. It could be
argued that rescinding plastic bag bans could be premature, as many consumers have already
adjusted to using non-plastic alternatives following the implementation of these policies 55.
Moreover, it is unclear how reusable grocery bags could contribute to greater risk compared to
clothes or shoes, a potential risk that could also be mitigated with proper hand hygiene.
The demand for single-use plastics may also increase during the pandemic. Consumers have
shifted from worrying about environmental impacts to preferring plastic packaging due to
hygiene and health reasons during the pandemic 56. Thus, an increased demand for groceries,
healthcare products, and e-commerce packaging is expected, with decreases in the remaining
areas 57. This demand is likely to originate in food delivery and take-way packaging, since the
sector is growing rapidly (e.g. 12% increase in revenues for Grubhub)58, and pre-packed foods in
grocery shopping (e.g. 20 – 54% increase in pre-packed animal products) 59. Indeed, plastic and
corrugated grocery packaging is expected to increase by 14% in the U.S. 57, while a plastic
packaging company in Spain increased sales by 40% 60. Moreover, the Centers for Disease
Control and Prevention (CDC) in the US recommend the use of disposable food service items
(e.g. utensils, dishes) for restaurants and bars 61, which will also increase demand for single-use
plastics. Conversely, household waste production has generally decreased during the pandemic,
falling 17% in Catalonia, Spain 62, 30% in China 63, and 28% in Milan, Italy 64. In Milan, plastic
and metal waste decreased by 16.3% 64
, while plastic waste increased by 15% in Thailand 65
likely due to cultural factors. On the contrary, medical waste increased drastically, sometimes
exceeding treatment capacity, with an increase of 350% in Catalonia, Spain 66, and of 370% in
China 63. Proper treatment of urban waste was also hindered by a decrease in recycling capacity,
with 34% of recycling companies in the U.S. being partially or completely closed, which also
results from a decreased demand from industries and falling oil prices that favor the consumption
of virgin plastics 67. Therefore, the COVID-19 pandemic changed consumption patterns,
benefiting the use of single-use plastic packaging, but leading to an overall decrease in urban
waste production and hindering recycling efforts. On the other hand, demand for disposable PPE
in healthcare increased the production of medical waste, sometimes beyond treatment capacity,
requiring the development of alternative end-of-life treatments.
The COVID-19 pandemic has underlined the role of plastics as an irreplaceable material to
society, proving an inexpensive and widely available feedstock to produce medical equipment.
Concerns about the role of reusable plastics as vectors for virus has led to reactive calls to
rescind bans on single-use plastics, supported by an opportunistic plastic industry and fearful
citizens alike. Despite this paradigm shift during the pandemic, it is necessary not to undermine
recent progress achieved in the phasing of redundant single-use plastics keeping in mind the
long-term consequences of widespread plastic contamination. Reducing the need and reusing
PPE is particularly important. Reductions can be achieved through an optimized use through
physical barriers, rationalized use of healthcare staff, quarantine, social distancing measures, and
cancelation of events and mass gatherings 68. Reusing can be achieved through the production of
reusable PPE, which would also reduce the dependency on dwindling single-use stocks. For
instance, reusable elastomeric respirators, with strict cleaning and disinfection protocols, could
reduce the need for disposable masks 69. End-of-life of PPE should be handled as hazardous
infectious materials by healthcare professionals and citizens alike. While the healthcare sector
already has policies in place for the proper management of infectious waste, citizens require
information on proper use and disposal independently of government recommendations. This
include proper disposal as mixed waste in closed leak-proof bags. Alternatively, over-the-counter
PPE could be made of biodegradable polymers that degrade under environmental conditions if
improperly discarded, avoiding long-term contamination, despite the potential for containing
viable SARS-CoV-2 virus in the short-term. Finally, significant environmental contamination
with PPE has already occurred and will need to be assessed in terms of (micro)plastic
contamination in the post-pandemic.
* firstname.lastname@example.org, University of Aveiro, 3810-193 Aveiro, Portugal
Joana C. Prata: Conceptualization, Project administration, Visualization, Writing - original draft,
Writing - review & editing. Ana Luisa Silva: Conceptualization, Project administration,
Visualization, Writing - original draft, Writing - review & editing. Tony Walker:
Conceptualization, Project administration, Visualization, Writing - original draft, Writing -
review & editing. Armando C. Duarte: Conceptualization, Supervision, Project administration,
Funding acquisition, Writing - review & editing. Teresa Rocha-Santos: Conceptualization,
Supervision, Project administration, Funding acquisition, Writing - review & editing. ‡These
authors contributed equally.
Thanks are due to FCT/MCTES for the financial support
(UIDP/50017/2020+UIDB/50017/2020), through national funds. This work was also funded by
Portuguese Science Foundation (FCT) through scholarship PD/BD/135581/2018,
PD/BPD/114870/2016 and CEECIND/01366/2018 under POCH funds, co-financed by the
European Social Fund and Portuguese National Funds from MEC.
PPE, Personal Protection Equipment.
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