By Don C. Brunell
What happens in China doesn’t always stay in China. We learned that a couple of years ago when the Chinese stopped buying massive volumes of the world’s used paper, plastics and textiles; and possibly again in March, when the coronavirus, which was first reported in Wuhan, later spread across the planet.
Like other nations, China is struggling with the deadly coronavirus and suffocating under mountains of trash its residents generate each day. Wuhan hospitals generated six times as much medical waste at the peak of the outbreak as they did before the crisis began. The daily output of medical waste reached 240 metric tons, about the weight of an adult blue whale.
While the pandemic has led to dramatically improved air quality because people are working from home and not commuting, it has been a headache for recyclers. It has inundated household waste collectors with more recyclables than they can possibly handle. As a consequence, approximately two-thirds of our recyclables now end up in landfills.
Markets for spent plastics are feeble and municipal governments, which operate the preponderance of recycling programs, struggle to fund recycling collection, sorting and storage.
One of the biggest conundrums is finding markets for single-use plastics such as grocery bags, water and soda bottles and takeout food containers. Styrofoam and plastic food box use rose sharply as indoor dining stopped and restaurants resorted to takeout.
Dave Ford wrote in Scientific American: “And while takeout has been the saving grace for many restaurants, it’s also contributing to the growing heap of single-use plastic globally. Much of this kind of plastic is not recyclable. 2020 is on pace to see 30 percent more waste than 2019.”
According to Reuters, an extra 1,334 tons of plastic waste, equivalent to the weight of 92 double-decker buses, was generated from takeaway and delivery meals in Singapore during the two-months of stay-home restrictions. The National University of Singapore study was conducted at a time when environmental efforts, such as bring-your-own-container schemes, had ground to a halt because of fear of COVID-19 contamination.
Since March, medical wastes shot up as well. COVID-19 triggered an estimated global use of 129 billion face masks and 65 billion gloves every month since last March. “If we stitched together all of the masks manufactured already, and projected to be produced, we’d be able to cover the entire landmass of Switzerland,” Ford added.
The other glitch is that more rubbish is making its way into streams, lakes and oceans. Ford wrote: “Eight million metric tons of plastic waste enter the oceans every year. This equates to one garbage truck’s worth of plastic being dumped into our oceans every minute. The total weight is the equivalent of 90 aircraft carriers and models project that by 2050, there will be more plastic by weight than fish in the oceans.”
The garbage difficulty is getting worse worldwide and the coronavirus has exacerbated the situation. Every year we collectively dump a massive 2.12 billion tons of waste. If all this waste was put on trucks they would go around the world 24 times. By 2035, the World Bank estimates, trash volumes will increase by 70 percent to 3.4 billion tons.
China has the most serious trash issue as its fast-paced economy expands. It surpassed the U.S. as the world’s largest waste generator in 2004. By 2030 the country will likely produce twice as much municipal solid waste as the United States.
The trash problem, like the coronavirus, does not recognize international boundaries. It is a global environmental ticking time bomb just as important as climate change. COVID-19 has made the situation worse.
Hopefully, greater attention and “good old American ingenuity” can lead us to better solutions.
Don C. Brunell is a business analyst, writer and columnist. He recently retired as president of the Association of Washington Business, the state’s oldest and largest business organization, and now lives in Vancouver. He can be contacted at theBrunells@msn.com.