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In 2020, when coronavirus lockdowns emptied public spaces and birdsong replaced the drone of cars and airplanes, some saw an opportunity to embrace a slower, more mindful way of life and prioritize the health of the planet over boundless consumption. It hasn’t turned out that way. A surge in e-commerce and online meal deliveries means humanity is spewing out trash like never before. And an avalanche of discarded face masks, gloves, syringes and test kits that saved countless lives has left a deadly legacy to the natural world. 

1. How much waste did the pandemic generate?

More than 530 million tons of plastic waste were created in the first seven months of the Covid-19 outbreak, suggesting the total for 2020 would be at least double that of 2019, a paper in Nature found. Singapore takeaway and home-delivery services alone left an additional 1.21 million tons of discarded plastic during the city-state’s lockdown from April to May 2020. 

2. Where did it all end up? 

A lot never made it to garbage treatment facilities and ended up littering the landscape or breaking into tiny particles that entered the ground, rivers and sea. U.S. utilities complained of masks and other virus-related waste being flushed down toilets, clogging pipes and sewage treatment facilities. Some 1.56 billion face masks may have found their way into the oceans in 2020, according to a study that year by campaign group OceansAsia. Conservation groups recorded a surge in the quantity of masks, wipes and gloves piling up on beaches from Hong Kong to California. The Marine Mammal Center, which rescues and rehabilitates whales, dolphins and seals, found animals drowning after being tangled in the materials or dying because they ingested them. 

3. Why is the medical industry hooked on plastic?

It’s cheap, abundant, can be molded into all sorts of forms and textures and is a highly effective shield against viruses and bacteria, making it ideal for personal protective equipment, or PPE. Unlike glass or ceramics, it can be flexible and very light, and it won’t rot or corrode like wood or metal. 

4. Can’t you just recycle it?

Plastics that filter out viral particles aren’t considered safe to use more than once, or to touch afterwards without protection. Other PPE that might normally be recycled ends up being wrongly categorized as hazardous. Many products are composites of different plastics, making them impossible to recycle. The most common disposable masks are a three-layer construction of smooth cellulose, “melt-blown” polypropylene and polyester, plus a metallic nose strip. To be reused, each of these layers and the metal would need to be separated, which can’t be done at most waste facilities. So they’re usually collected, baled and sent to landfill, or burned — releasing particles into the atmosphere that end up as “plastic-rain” or “plastic-smog” that can enter food, drinking water and the air you breathe. 

5. How much regular waste is recycled?

It depends on where you are. Well over half of German waste is reused. In the U.S., about a third was recycled or composted in 2018. In 2016, it was costing New York City $18 per ton more to collect and process recyclable materials than to dispose of regular refuse. Since then, recycling costs have surged, partly because China stopped buying waste from other countries in 2017. There’s still a healthy market for the relatively hard plastics in laundry detergent bottles and water bottles. But much of the rest is difficult to recycle because it contains mixes of materials that need to be separated using specialized machines. Improper recycling also adds to the cost. For example, just one pizza box in a cardboard recycling pile can ruin the whole batch, since oils in it can’t be separated from the paper fiber. 

The pandemic got more people using recycling platforms like the Freecycle Network, where around 1,000 tons of items now change hands every day — roughly the amount of trash that ends up in a mid-size landfill. Entrepreneurs from France to India are experimenting with turning waste plastic into building bricks, school chairs, 3D printer filament and yarn for clothing. Some are transforming face masks into new products like visors by melding them with newer types of plastics. There are experiments with plastics that biodegrade, or contain natural ingredients. Another alternative is to make more packaging products out of materials that are more easily reused, such as glass or metals. None of these proposed solutions are close to reversing a waste problem that’s only growing. Greenpeace has estimated that online shopping in China generated 9.4 million tons of packaging in 2018, and that could jump to 41 million tons by 2025. 

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