How the pandemic has affected ocean plastic pollution

Graphic by Ali Beatty.

Graphic by Ali Beatty.

ReAna Hummel, Staff Reporter

Ocean plastic pollution has been an ongoing problem in the United States and around the world for over 30 years. The plastic industry has since grown and so has the plastic content in the oceans, not just in the United States but in other countries too. Consumers are constantly dependent on plastic for everyday things like take-out food containers, plastic water bottles, and plastic utensils.

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, plastic content in the ocean has skyrocketed. Tonya Mosley and Serena McMahon from WBUR, a Boston online newspaper said, But thanks to an increase in pandemic-related, non-recyclable materials such as take-out plastic containers and masks, 30% more waste has crept into our oceans”  

This is due to improper disposal of masks and latex gloves, COVID-19 has triggered the use of around 130 million face masks and 65 million gloves each month. Things like masks and gloves can be mistaken for food for marine animals, so it’s important for humans to dispose of them properly.

Since the oil market collapsed in early March 2020 and the pandemic also really took its place in early March, plastic prices got cheaper, making it easier to buy and produce more. As lockdowns occurred for people because of the pandemic, it also occurred for companies with large populations of people and major garbage/recycling companies like Waste Management. With the lockdown in place, the plastic abundance started to rise drastically.

Dropping oil prices also means less demand for recycled materials such as packaging supplies like bubble wrap and packing peanuts, and the market for these materials has been dramatically affected. Because of this, more plastic was produced and consumers were taking advantage of that because of lower prices, meaning they were buying more, but there came many problems with that. Without people being mindful of where they put their trash in (recycling or in the garbage) a lot of it could end up in a landfill or in the oceans.

Since China has stopped buying our plastic waste and other garbage related items, the mounds of trash have grown tremendously. 

“For decades, we’ve been throwing just about whatever we wanted—wire hangers and pizza boxes and ketchup bottles and yogurt containers—into the bin and sending it to China, where low-paid workers sorted through it and cleaned it up. That’s no longer an option,” Alana Semules from The Atlantic said.

China decided to stop taking US plastic because it was more contaminated causing it to be harder to recycle and to sort out for cleaning. It was easier to just put it into a landfill. Because of China not taking US plastic, the US coasts are filled with more plastic and other garbage and because of the pandemic, ocean plastic pollution has increased by more than 30%. 

The move was an effort to halt a deluge of soiled and contaminated materials that was overwhelming Chinese processing facilities and leaving the country with yet another environmental problem — and this one not of its own making,” Cheryl Kats from Yale Environment 360 said. So because of this, not only has it affected the US and its economic state, it has also affected China and the number of jobs lost.