COVID-19 and its Impact on the Environment
COVID-19 and its Impact on the Environment
  • Reporter Lee Seung-Joo
  • 승인 2020.11.27 14:44
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▲Many masks end up in the environment, causing irrevocable harm / United Nations Conference on Trade and Development
▲Many masks end up in the environment, causing irrevocable harm / United Nations Conference on Trade and Development


COVID-19, since its emergence in Wuhan, China in Dec. 2019, still holds a strong influence in everyone’s daily life. Governments and medical institutions strive to provide appropriate care diagnosis, recovery, and quarantine of confirmed or probable patients. As no definite cure for the disease has yet been discovered, prevention measures are emphasized in every country to stop the further manifestation of COVID-19. Along with social distancing, the most prominent means to prevent COVID-19 is to wear masks. Not only masks but gloves and many other hygiene products have become daily essentials of everyone’s lives. Also, many cafés and restaurants recommend customers to order take-outs or delivery services rather than dining out to avoid direct contact, leading to an increase in the usage of disposable products. An increase in medical activities has also resulted in massive dependence on single-use medical equipment. The immense increase in the usage of such products have indeed weakened the spread of COVID-19 but has also induced environmental issues all around the world.
Initially, due to the lockdowns all over the world, COVID-19 seemed to have a positive influence on the environment. Many factories around the world were closed to prevent the spread of COVID-19, and many transportation systems were halted due to low demand. As major sources of CO2 emissions were cut short, the air quality for many major cities all around the world showed improvements. Due to such results, the notion that COVID-19 is beneficial to the environment rose and was accepted by the media and public. 
However, as the COVID-19 pandemic prolonged, industrial, transportation, and other human activities resumed, and the beneficial influences of COVID-19 diminished. Instead, due to inevitable human activities during the “untact” (a coined term with the meaning, “without contact”) way of life, more disposable products were required by many societies, generating a massive amount of waste. BBC has announced that approximately 129 billion face masks and 65 billion plastic gloves are generated each month globally, and, according to Statistics Korea, the amount of money spent on online shopping in July has increased by 15.8% compared to that of 2019, which is the highest since 2001. Specifically, the expenditures on online groceries increased by 72.8% and the expenditures on delivery food service increased by 45.7% compared to that of 2019. The packaging wastes resulting from such services are immense. Correspondingly, according to Korea’s Ministry of Environment, the amount of plastic wastes has increased by 15.6% compared to the previous year.
Among wastes increased due to COVID-19, the resulting medical waste is extra significant. The United States Environmental Protection Agency defines medical waste as “the subset of wastes generated at health care facilities, such as hospitals, physicians’ offices, dental practices, blood banks, and veterinary hospitals/clinics, as well as medical research facilities and laboratories that may be contaminated by blood, body fluids or other potentially infectious materials”. Since the emergence of COVID-19, the increase of medical waste has been steep. According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the estimated total amount of medical waste generated each day by Wuhan during the active pandemic ranges from 50 to 106.9 tons a day. Other regions showed similar expert forecasts. Data from Asia Development Bank shows that in Manila, Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok, and Ha Noi, five representative cities from Asia’s developing countries, it is approximated that COVID-19 may cause up to a 500% increase in medical waste. 
UNEP reported that many countries or cities may be incapable of  managing excessive medical waste. According to UNEP, it is difficult to achieve environmentally-sound proper waste management during an unanticipated pandemic for the following reasons: Firstly, there is insufficient data regarding the estimated amount of medical waste generation to prepare for. Secondly, there lacks any prior knowledge regarding the hot spots of waste generation and travel routes for waste management. Thirdly, there is insufficient information or capacity to perform assessments to gain data necessary to make forecasts regarding waste generation. Lastly, for disaster/conflict-affected states, it is difficult to perform any operations overall. However, poor management of medical wastes may cause secondary transmissions (not reported for COVID-19) or environmental issues due to leakage. Also, even existing medical waste management may not be environmentally-sound since it mainly involves incineration or open burning and rampant dumping, which harm the environment. 
Experts assert that the increase of wastes is inevitable in current circumstances. Ongoing research strives to implement degradable materials that can replace plastic and other harmful materials that make up the majority of disposable products. UNEP suggests that in the long term, “COVID-19 should be a warning that more basic infrastructure and capacity, in line with the requirements of the relevant Multilateral Environmental Agreements, is urgently needed” and “we must embed sustainability into COVID-19 economic recovery.”