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Plastic and COVID-19: results of a crisis caused by excess

By Marina T. Botana

English edit by Malu Abieri and Katyanne Shoemaker

Historically, we have observed that the great crises of humanity were commonly generated by scarcity (lack of water, lack of food, lack of energy resources). However, today, in the middle of the year 2020, we are witnessing a crisis caused by excess and by a disconnect between human beings and their fellow humans in society as well as with nature. Excessive resource exploitation, excessive consumption, excessive waste, excessive pollution and selfishness...

Illustration by Yonara Garcia.

The COVID-19 pandemic caught everyone by surprise. Overnight, hygiene and cleanliness efforts doubled. The use of disposable products, mostly made of plastic, such as masks and gloves, grew. The investments made at the beginning of the production chain for these inputs were immeasurable, after all, the new needs were health and humanitarian emergencies. We are aware of the importance of these products in containing the coronavirus, however, nothing has been done to improve the final destination of all this new waste. Unfortunately, not only in Brazil, but also in other parts of the world, we observe the absence or extreme inefficiency of public policies for the management and disposal of common and hospital solid waste. This problem has plagued the ocean for many decades now, as the final destination of most of our garbage, whether directly or indirectly, ends up being the sea. Personal protective equipment (PPE) discarded in recent years is no exception: beaches, bays, reefs - all increasingly filled with masks, gloves and other disposable objects made of plastic.

Glove and mask found on the coast of Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil. (Photos by Gerson Fernandino, license CC-AS-BY 4.0.).

The decrease in demand for oil and gas during the pandemic has reduced global recycling rates, and producing new plastics has become cheaper than buying recycled products. The oil and gas companies themselves released a note saying that the production of plastics could be the salvation to maintain profits and offset the losses generated by the decrease in demand for fuels (Source: A study released in June of 2020, estimated that since March 2020, 129 billion masks and 65 billion gloves had been discarded into the ocean each month. When we think about the total amount of plastic, the number becomes even more absurd: 8 million tons per day, the equivalent of dumping a truck full of garbage into the ocean every minute, every day! Can you imagine?

In Singapore, since the beginning of the pandemic, an additional 1,400 tonnes of plastic only from take-out food deliveries have been dumped into the oceans every week. In Brazil, this information wasn’t estimated.

If we estimate proportionally to the number of people, whereas consumption habits in large cities tend to be similar, São Paulo alone with 44 million inhabitants may produce around 11 thousand extra tons of plastic waste every week! The lack of public monitoring policies makes data surveys more difficult. Little can be said about what we don't know. How can we persuade others to preserve what they don’t know? Luckily, non-governmental organizations have been disclosing what was happening on the southeastern coast over the last few months. The Instituto Mar Urbano, which monitors Guanabara Bay in Rio de Janeiro, revealed shocking images showing terrifying amounts of PPE floating in the bay. In São Paulo, the Instituto Argonauta found a dead Magellanic penguin with an N-95 mask in its stomach and highlighted that the animal's death was linked to the accidental ingestion of the PPE. Another concern about the interaction of marine and coastal masks and organisms, is the danger of entanglement. As shown by the NGO Australian Seabird Rescue, the simple action of cutting the mask straps before discarding them can prevent deaths.

“Masks in the Sea” (free translation of the documentary entitled “Máscaras ao Mar”) produced by Instituto Mar Urbano.

Necropsy carried out by Instituto Argonauta of the body of a Magellanic penguin found on the coast of São Paulo. In the lower image we see the N-95 mask found in the penguin's stomach. Ingestion may have caused the animal’s death (Photo by: Communication department of Instituto Argonauta license CC-AS-BY 4.0.).

It is sad to believe that in a country with immeasurable biodiversity like ours, with more than 8 thousand kilometers of coastline, there are almost no programs for monitoring garbage in the sea or on the beaches and that there are still no effective policies in place regarding waste disposal. Even worse is to think it’s normalized that this responsibility is transferred to civil society. The entire budget of the Ministry of the Environment (MMA) represents only 0.06% of public spending in Brazil. This year, we are already in November and only 55% of the budget approved for the entire year has been spent (Source: When called negligent, the representatives allege that they “have no funds” for the implementation of monitoring programs. The scarcity of funds is a reality, now the negligence of not using what little has been approved is a pure sign of dystopia, that is, of camouflaged authoritarianism. All of this makes it impossible to create solutions for the real problems we face now and which will be even worse for future generations. These are alarming problems for Brazilian reality, but they are also pervasive throughout the world due to the development model. If we can even call all of this development, since the main pillars of development are economic growth, consumption, and enrichment to the detriment of quality of life, environmental health and resource sharing.

“A system in which the motivation axis is limited to profit, without having to get involved in environmental and social impacts, is trapped in its own logic. Everything has to gain with the maximum extraction of natural resources and externalization of costs”, said economist Ladislau Dowbor. The environmental and health crises caused by COVID-19 are, first and foremost, a crisis of the model of excess itself. The wheel of production and consumption must turn at any cost, obeying the cycle of capital reproduction, regardless of the environmental impacts and social inequalities aggravated by this process. In this system, “the more, the better.” That said, I wonder to what extent the implementation of plastic waste monitoring and disposal programs, even if global, would be really effective within these guidelines of excess and unbridled consumption. This and any other environmental and social revolutions must be followed by a break in the logic of these dystopias rooted in the system. There is no point in thinking about sustainability policies that are not accompanied by curbing the logic of consumption. Rethink, reduce and reuse before recycling...

COVID-19 and all the environmental and socioeconomic crises that were linked and/or aggravated by it are a consequence of the ills intrinsically linked to the logic of excess of our current model of “development.” The health crisis will pass, but the PPE and plastics discarded in nature will survive for hundreds of years. As long as the system logic is not changed, it will be a simple matter of time before new viruses appear. The environment will continue to be exploited in an unsustainable way and global inequalities will only become more and more serious. As an environmental scientist, I believe I have little ability to discuss social, economic, and political issues in more depth. However, the pandemic sparked my interest in other areas of knowledge. This outdated “development” model fulfills its role very well in training excellent professionals who are exceptionally technical in their respective areas, but who often fall short in social, ethical and moral issues. Taking part in this whole is the duty and responsibility of every human being living in society. If there is another plausible development model and/or a solution to mitigate excess and develop more effective public policies for the real problems we face, at this moment I don't know. But I believe that the integration of different views and broad discussion on the subject is essential for us to develop new perspectives and not lose hope in building a better world…


For those who enjoyed the text, here are some reading suggestions:

A. Kimini, “How the COVID-19 plastic boom could save the oil industry,” (2020).

Adyel, Tanveer M. "Accumulation of plastic waste during COVID-19." Science 369, no. 6509 (2020): 1314-1315.

Livro “A era do capital improdutivo” – Ladislau Dowbor, 2 ͣedição –

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