I recently counted seven separate pieces of plastic in a single Covid-19 rapid antigen test (RAT). All school staff, teachers and students are required to take daily RATs
, as are elderly care home staff
. Every inbound traveller must take 11 RATs and five PCR tests.
More than half a million RATs are taken every day in Hong Kong, generating more than 3.5 million pieces of plastic from the test kits. In April this year alone, 60 million RAT kits and 60 million KN95 masks were distributed to the city’s 3 million households
. The numbers boggle the mind.
It is no wonder the Covid-19 pandemic is also known as the “plastic pandemic” as the single-use plastic waste generated is truly astounding. Why the love of plastics? They have an excellent strength-to-weight ratio and are durable and inexpensive, but where does all the waste go? For plastics that are not appropriately disposed of and recycled, it becomes mismanaged waste
that is discharged into the environment.
According to Hong Kong-based marine conservation organisation OceansAsia, around 52 billion disposable face masks were produced globally in 2020. By the end of that year, an estimated 1.6 billion disposable masks made their way into the oceans – that is more than 4 million per day. The throwaway mask pollution in the first year of the pandemic was equal to 7 per cent of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch
, a mass of plastic debris that floats in the Pacific Ocean.
Face masks are commonly made of polypropylene, which breaks up into microplastics and is eaten by fish and marine life, getting into our food supply. It is estimated that the 2020 mask pollution will take about 450 years to decompose while in the ocean.
A more recent report from November 2021 by researchers from Nanjing University and the University of California San Diego was even more grim. They found that 193 countries had generated more than 8 million tonnes of pandemic-associated plastic waste
through to August 2021. This included personal protective equipment, plastic gloves, masks, face visors, packaging and so on. More than 70 per cent of the global discharge was from hospital waste.
Given the propensity of people in East Asia to wear masks
and test for Covid-19, 72 per cent of the global discharge and 46 per cent of mismanaged plastic waste was from Asia. This was disproportionate to the region’s level of confirmed cases. The pandemic has exacerbated an “already out-of-control global plastic waste problem”, the scientists lamented.
Additional plastic waste was generated from takeaway food
and online shopping
amid the quarantine and lockdowns. More than 26,000 tonnes of plastic have entered our oceans, equivalent to more than 2,000 double-decker buses. By some estimates, plastic waste in our oceans could outweigh fish by 2050.
How do we move forward? The surge in waste from the pandemic has set back sustainable development goals for Hong Kong and the world by several years, and perhaps decades. The World Health Organization is calling for reform surrounding the disposal of medical waste. When I was chairman of the Council for Sustainable Development, we conducted several public engagement exercises, one of which was on municipal solid waste
In the transition to a sustainable future, we must recognise the crucial role of waste management services. We need to advance multiple Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) such as SDG 11, which calls on cities to ensure effective waste management; SDG 12, on reducing waste generation through prevention, reduction, recycling and reuse; and SDG 14, on reducing all kinds of marine pollution.
We need to recognise the devastating effects single-use plastics
are having on the environment. We need to keep track of and measure the plastic waste we are generating and take this into consideration when formulating Covid-19 testing, quarantine and mask policies. We need to invest in building effective waste management systems and find innovative programmes to recycle more.
There is no doubt that single-use plastics have saved many lives during the pandemic, but at what cost to the Earth and future generations? As the present informs the future, we need to take stock of how our current actions will affect generations to come and devise balanced solutions accordingly.
Bernard Chan is a Hong Kong businessman and a former Executive Council convenor