Hot Topics: As we fight Covid-19 with masks and rapid tests, another battle rages against plastic waste in our oceans

  • A study last year found that mismanaged plastic waste had surged amid the coronavirus pandemic, with an estimated 87 per cent coming from hospitals
  • Meanwhile, Hong Kong’s only clinical waste incinerator has struggled to keep up with the increase of rubbish, which has increased nearly six-fold since the pandemic began
Doris Wai |

Latest Articles

Top 10: If you could change one thing in maths, what would it be?

90 per cent of Hong Kong primary students secure place at preferred public schools

5,000 Hong Kong police officers to patrol streets on Tiananmen anniversary

At the end of the century, nearly all of the plastics related to the pandemic are likely to end up deposited on beaches or the seabed. Photo: Shutterstock

Hot Topics takes an issue being discussed in the news and allows you to compare and analyse different articles on the subject. Our questions encourage you to examine the topic in-depth and can be used on your own or with a friend.

Context: Mismanaged plastic waste surges amid Covid-19 pandemic, study finds

The world generated about 8.4 million tonnes of “mismanaged” plastic waste from the pandemic as of August 2021, with nearly 26,000 tonnes entering oceans. This came from a study that highlighted the problem of dealing with medical waste in Covid-19 epicentres.

Researchers estimated that 87 per cent of the extra mismanaged plastic waste came from hospitals. Personal protective equipment (PPE) use by individuals contributed 8 per cent, while packaging added 5 per cent and test kits 0.3 per cent.

As of August 23 last year, Asia generated 46 per cent of the extra plastic waste that ended up in the environment, compared with North America’s 6 per cent.

UN takes first step towards ‘historic’ plastic treaty

“This reflects the lower treatment level of medical waste in many developing countries, such as India, Brazil and China, compared with developed countries ... in North America and Europe,” researchers said.

“The mismanaged plastic waste generated from individual PPE [including face masks, gloves and face shields] is ... skewed towards Asia because of the large mask-wearing population.”

The team, from Nanjing University in China and the University of California San Diego in the US, published their findings in the peer-reviewed journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America last November.

Disposable surgical masks are just one example of the single-use plastics used in our fight against the coronavirus pandemic. Photo: Shutterstock

Increased demand for single-use plastic from the pandemic had worsened “an already out-of-control global plastic waste problem”, the scientists said.

The team projected that at the end of the century, almost all of the plastics related to the pandemic would end up on beaches or the seabed. Plastics released into the sea could trap or be eaten by animals, they said.

The researchers called for better plastic waste collection, classification, treatment and recycling. They said greener materials were needed to help reduce the amount of waste generated by the pandemic.
Staff writer

Question prompts:

  • “Coronavirus waste is a new form of pollution.” Do you agree with this statement? Explain.

  • Using Context, explain TWO ways that Covid-19 has contributed to plastic waste.

  • List TWO reasons plastic waste might be “mismanaged” based on Context and Glossary.

Hot Topics: Why are green groups wary of MTR’s Northern Link line?


Question prompts:

  • Describe TWO trends shown in the chart. With reference to Context and your own knowledge, explain what events were likely behind these trends.

  • What might the information from this chart mean for the marine environment? Use Context and Glossary to support your answer.

Hot Topics: everything you need to know about Hong Kong’s waste-charging scheme

News: Hong Kong’s only clinical waste incinerator struggles with sharp increase in refuse created by surge in Covid-19 cases

Hong Kong’s sole incinerator for clinical waste can no longer cope with the surge in refuse, which has increased nearly six-fold since the pandemic began two years ago.

The city produced 48.7 tonnes of clinical waste each day between March 19 and 23, according to the latest data from the Environmental Protection Department. The levels of refuse are twice the amount the city’s clinical waste incinerator can handle, with the facility in Kwai Chung only capable of processing 20 to 24 tonnes per day.

Environmental groups in the city said they were alarmed by the sharp increase, even as they acknowledged the build-up in waste was the result of a unique health crisis.

Amid Hong Kong’s fifth wave of Covid-19 cases, large amounts of plastic waste were generated from personal protective equipment and Covid-19 rapid test kits. Photo: Jelly Tse

Activists said they were particularly concerned by the rise in the use of plastic during the pandemic, not only from single-use disposable food containers and cutlery but also from Covid-19 rapid antigen test (RAT) kits.

Senior lecturer Chung Shan-shan, a waste management specialist at Baptist University, said she was concerned about the “immeasurable” impact of the increase in waste during the pandemic.

“Every [test] kit, cotton bud and vial used in self-testing and at testing centres is a single-use plastic, not to mention the damage from plastic utensils as people are now encouraged to buy takeaway food,” she said.

Other activists said the impact of single-use test kits should not be a concern during the pandemic.

Why two Hong Kong teen climate activists say ‘there is still hope’

“Public health is the priority now. I won’t consider it an environmental protection issue,” said Allan Wong Wing-ho, vice-chairman of the Hong Kong Scrap Plastic Association. “There are far more important environmental issues to pay attention to.”

Wong said he felt Hongkongers’ habits of throwing items such as bottles and bags generated far more plastic than the test kits handed out by the government.

Meanwhile, Edwin Lau Che-feng, executive director of the environmental group Green Earth said it was important to protect the public during Covid-19, but it was no excuse for “consuming limited resources thoughtlessly”.

“The pandemic shouldn’t prevent the government and manufacturers from thinking about ... [reducing] plastic waste while protecting the city from the disease,” he said.
Staff writer

Question prompts:

  • “Plastic waste generated because of a public health crisis is not an environmental issue.” Explain ONE argument for this statement and ONE against.

  • Using Context, News and your own knowledge, suggest TWO measures the government and manufacturers could take to reduce plastic waste while protecting the city from Covid-19.

Corals doomed even if global climate goals met

Issue: Hong Kong researchers discover masks from 2020 could pollute more than 54,000 Olympic pools worth of seawater

Surgical masks that fall into the sea could be releasing microplastics as they degrade, polluting an amount of water equal to 54,800 Olympic-sized swimming pools.

Dr He Yuhe at City University’s State Key Laboratory of Marine Pollution made the discovery after spotting discarded masks at local beaches.

“We really urge residents to ... properly dispose of their used surgical masks to prevent them from being swept into the sea by wind or rain,” He said.

As the masks are made from woven plastic fibres, any discarded face coverings could take anywhere from 100 to 1,000 years to fully decompose. Once in the sea, the ocean currents and ultraviolet rays from the sun break masks down into tiny fragments or fibres.

Plastic and other garbage pollutes the seabed of the Adriatic Sea. Photo: Andrey Nekrasov/Barcroft Media via Getty Images

His lab study found that one mask, weighing between 3 and 4 grams, could fully break down into 880,000 to 1.17 million microplastic pieces after nine days, while already damaged ones could break down faster.

A report by Hong Kong-based OceansAsia in 2020 estimated that about 1.56 billion single-use surgical masks would have entered the sea that year.

The CityU professor estimated that this could lead to the release of 1,370 trillion pieces of microplastic. At a concentration of 10 microplastic pieces per ml of water, He said the total amount would pollute a volume of seawater equal to 54,800 Olympic-sized swimming pools.

Chemists cook up way to remove microplastics using okra

These minuscule bits can be eaten by microscopic crustaceans called copepods, which are found in almost every saltwater and freshwater habitat, providing food for larger animals including fish and even whales.

He tested the impact on one species, Tigriopus japonicus, and found their reproductive abilities had been reduced by 22 per cent, while their nutrient intake and growth rate had also slowed. Fewer copepods could mean decreased food sources for other species, He warned.

The researchers said they were worried it could produce a domino effect on marine ecosystems, as masks were not the only source of microplastics in the ocean.

“Since the masks are a disease prevention tool, what we really need is stronger enforcement to prevent littering of the masks,” said Kenneth Leung Mei-yee, a professor who was also involved in the study.
Staff writer

Question prompts:

  • Using Issue and Glossary, explain how microplastics affect marine ecosystems.

  • “While public attention during the Covid-19 pandemic has focused on human health, the world’s response is leading to environmental impacts that will last well beyond the health crisis.” To what extent do News and Issue agree with this statement? Explain your answer.

World must work together to tackle plastic ocean threat, says WWF


  1. Clinical waste: refers to any potentially hazardous substance created by clinics, medical establishments and laboratories. According to the Environmental Protection Department, these include used or contaminated sharp instruments, laboratory waste and all infectious materials. Because of the potential health risk, clinical waste cannot be recycled and must be incinerated or buried in a landfill after being treated.

  2. Copepods: microscopic, shrimp-like crustaceans that live in freshwater and saltwater habitats. There are close to 13,000 known species around the world. They are an essential part of marine food chains and serve either directly or indirectly as food sources for many fish species. Copepods typically eat algae, and this act prevents large blooms of aquatic plants that choke off oxygen in the water and kill other animals.

  3. Microplastic: tiny plastic particles less than 5mm in length. They usually result from commercial product development and breakdown of larger plastics.

  4. Mismanaged plastic waste: refers to plastic that is either littered or inadequately disposed of in dumps or open, uncontrolled landfills which are not fully contained. Such waste could eventually enter the ocean via inland waterways, waste water outflows and transport by wind or tides.

  5. Personal protective equipment (PPE): refers to protective clothing, helmets, gloves, face shields, goggles, face masks or other equipment designed to protect one from injury or the spread of infection or illness

Sign up for the YP Teachers Newsletter
Get updates for teachers sent directly to your inbox
By registering, you agree to our T&C and Privacy Policy