The COVID-19 pandemic has led to an increase in the consumption of single-use plastics, highlighting the need for better reuse and recycling policies for those materials.
By: Giulia Carcasci, Marcela Zambrano y Germán Sturzenegger*
In recent years, we have all read or heard about how plastic waste has reached every corner of the planet: oceans, glaciers, inside fish, and even in the human food chain in the form of microplastics (particles smaller than 5mm, created through mechanical and environmental degradation of plastics, which never decompose). In 2019, about 370 million tons of plastics were produced globally. Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) is not a large producer of plastic (contributing only 4% of global production), but it is a large importer and consumer, with serious environmental consequences, especially in our coastal areas.
In November 2020, the IDB published a study on the impacts of plastics on the oceans in our region. The report estimates that in 2020 about 3.7 million tons of plastic waste may have entered the oceans in LAC; this implies an increase of more than 60% of the estimated for 2010 (2.3 million tons).
The plastic crisis is the consequence of a solid waste management problem with several root causes: i) product design, which often does not favor recycling (for example, in the case of single-use containers and packaging); ii) low collection rates for low and middle-income countries (between 39% and 51% worldwide); iii) low levels of recycling (19% globally); and iv) poor environmental education of consumers. All these factors lead to the staggering amount of 8 million tons of plastics dumped into the oceans each year globally, with more than a third of it being single-use items.
The COVID-19 pandemic has caused an increase in the consumption of single-use plastics, oftentimes as a result of health and hygiene concerns, and due to initial uncertainties surrounding the potential for surface transmission via permanence of the virus on different materials and surfaces. In the last year, there has been an exponential increase in the use of masks, gloves, cleaning wipes and liquids, and food packaging, added to the bags, envelopes and wrapping associated with online purchases. During the peak of the pandemic, hospitals in Wuhan produced each day more than 240 tons of medical waste from single-use plastics (such as masks and gloves), 6 times more than the daily average before the pandemic occurred. At the same time, the global collapse in the price of oil in 2020 has created an additional incentive towards the production and consumption of plastics made from virgin materials.
The increase in the production of single-use plastics has not been the only impact of the pandemic. While municipal solid waste collection and disposal have been considered essential due to their role in preventing the transmission of diseases (and therefore exempt from restrictions), recycling has not been viewed the same way. In several countries, recycling activities were not considered essential, and were temporarily suspended. In the United States alone, at least 5 states suspended their bans on plastic bags, which led to the presence of more plastic bags in the environment.
One of the social consequences of the suspension of recycling programs, which has affected several countries in our region, has been the loss of jobs and income for many waste pickers. In LAC, it is estimated that more than 1.8 million people work as waste pickers, recovering up to 50% of the material that is recycled in the region.
To tackle these challenges, the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) has been developing a series of projects and activities to improve solid waste management throughout the region, supporting programs for household waste sorting, recycling, and final disposal, including the promotion of circular economy and plastic waste management. A sample of these programs includes the followings:
- Since 2011, the Bank is one of the strategic partners of Latitud R, the main regional platform for the articulation of actions, investments and knowledge in the field of recycling and inclusive circular economy.
- The Bank recently joined the Circular Economy Coalition for Latin America and the Caribbean, a platform that seeks to increase knowledge and technical assistance on the circular economy in the region.
- In December 2020, the Pacific Alliance countries, with the support of the IDB, approved a Roadmap for the sustainable management of plastics.
- The Bank remains committed to reducing the solid waste generated at its headquarters and in country offices, aiming to divert most of it to recycling and composting.
To learn more about the consequences of the pandemic on the management of plastic waste, and the actions taken by the IDB and other actors to face this crisis, we invite you to join us for “COVID and the plastic pandemic: Challenges and Solutions in Latin America, and globally.” The virtual event will take place the week of Earth Day, Friday, April 23, from 11am to 12:15 pm Washington DC time.
To register for the event, click here.
*Marcela Zambrano, a Colombian national; and Giulia Carcasci, an Italian national; are consultants for the IDB’s Water and Sanitation Division.
 PlasticsEurope. 2020. Plastics the Facts – 2020.
 World Bank. 2018. What a Waste 2.0.
 Jambeck, J. R., Geyer, R., Wilcox, C., Siegler, T. R., Perryman, M., Andrady, A., … & Law, K. L. (2015). Plastic waste inputs from land into the ocean. Science, 347(6223), 768-771.
 Avina. (2020). Institutional Presentation Latitud R.