Over 25,000 tonnes of COVID-19 plastic waste entered oceans in a year

Significant portion of this ocean plastic debris is expected to make its way onto beaches or seabed within 3-4 years, flags study

By Siddharth Ghanshyam Singh
Published: Tuesday 16 November 2021

More than 25,000 tonnes of novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19)-related plastics have entered the oceans from the onset of pandemic through August 2021, a recent study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) of the United States of America has estimated.  

The study showed that over 8.4 million tonnes of pandemic-associated plastic waste has been generated from 193 countries, of which over 25,000 tonnes has been released into the ocean.

The study was led by a team of researchers at Nanjing University’s School of Atmospheric sciences and University of California San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

The research found that a significant portion of this ocean plastic debris is expected to make its way onto the beaches or the seabed within three-four years.

It also found that hospital waste represented bulk of the global discharge; most of it was from Asia.

Sources of pandemic-related plastic waste. Source: PNAS

The study noted that over 95 per cent of the COVID-19 cases were found in North and South America (39.2 per cent), Asia (31.2 per cent) and Europe (25.7 per cent).

However, the mismanaged plastic waste generation did not follow the case distribution: Most of it was produced in Asia (46 per cent), Europe (24 per cent) and North and South America (22 per cent), with a cumulative contribution of 92 per cent of the pandemic related mismanaged plastic waste.

The researchers also simulated the fate of the mismanaged plastic waste once it entered the oceans, using a model to evaluate its impact on the marine environment. The model considers the primary processes that plastics undergo in seawater like drifting, settling, bio-fouling / de-fouling, abrasion and fragmentation.

The study then predicted the movement of plastic waste in the natural conveyor belts from 2021 till 2100.

Destination of mismanaged plastic by 2021-end. Source: PNAS

It also forecast that by the end of 2021, the number of confirmed cases will reach 280 million, generating close to 11 million tonnes of pandemic-related plastic waste, which will result in a riverine discharge of 34,000 tonnes into the ocean.

The study claimed that mismanaged plastic waste generation will be skewed towards Asia due to the record confirmed cases in India.

Uncertainties and assumptions

The study also admitted that there were substantial uncertainties with their estimates due to the lack of accurate data.

The study made a couple of assumptions, especially around the percentage of plastic in the sources considered for the study: Hospital-generated medical waste, virus-testing kits, PPE used by residents and online shopping packages. The percentage of plastic in each of the sources considered for study was:

Source of waste

Plastic percentage in waste

Hospital-generated medical waste


Virus-testing kits


PPE kits used by residents


Online shopping packages


Source: PNAS

In India, healthcare waste is primarily segregated into four different fractions, each of which has to be dealt with in a separate manner. There is very little data to ascertain the percentage distribution of each of the stream.

The infectious fraction discarded in the yellow bag was around 60 per cent, according to a January 2021 report submitted by the Central Pollution Control Board to the National Green Tribunal.

While the percentage distribution of plastic (red bag), glass (blue bag) and waste sharps (white container) has not been specified, it can be argued that the percentage of plastic waste in the overall medical waste generated would be lower for developing and poor economies.

Another point worth noticing is that the study assumed the entire population of a country uses e-commerce for ordering essentials like food and daily needs. While this may not be true even for the developed nations, it’s certainly not true for developing countries like India where the Internet user base is 40 per cent and only 11 per cent of the population uses e-commerce for their daily needs.

The study made assumptions around hospitalisation of COVID-19 patients that may not hold true for developing nations.

One such assumption is that all the COVID-19 infected people who need to be hospitalised got a hospital bed.

Mismanaged plastic waste and marine litter

The study took into account 369 major rivers and their water sheds on the marine litter front, which the authors believe accounted for 91 per cent of the global riverine plastic discharge to the sea.

The top 6 rivers for pandemic associated plastic waste discharge are:

Major rivers and their watersheds


COVID-19-associated plastic waste discharge (in thousand tonnes)

Shatt al Arab






Yangtze river



Ganges Brahmaputra









Source: PNAS

The top 10 rivers accounted for 79 per cent of the pandemic plastic discharge, top 20 for 91 per cent and top 100 for 99 per cent of the total discharge computed by the study.

About 73 per cent of the discharge is from Asian rivers followed by Europe at 11 per cent.

Based on the data provided by the authors, we analysed the mismanaged plastic waste (MMPW) and the discharge of plastic waste, continent-wise to arrive at the per capita mismanaged plastic waste and the per capita discharge.

Continent MMPW (Kgs) MMPW (tonnes) Discharge (Kg) Discharge (tonnes) Population Per capita MMPW (kg /person) Per capita Discharge (kg / person)
Africa 1,845,379,000 1,845,379 3,835,600 3,835.6 1,332,312,893 1.3851 0.0029
Asia 1,242,145,000 1,242,145 4,614,000 4,614 4,563,493,348 0.2722 0.0010
Europe 1,157,863,000 1,157,863 227,500 227.5 750,788,468 1.5422 0.0003
North America 4,147,063,000 4,147,063 9,769,600 9,769.6 583,850,918 7.1029 0.0167
South America 2,481,175,000 2,481,175 6,323,200 6,323.2 430,461,090 5.7640 0.0147
Oceania 775,369,000 7,75,369 1,106,000 1,106 40,451,076 19.1681 0.0273

Source: PNAS

This (above) analysis showed that the per capita mismanaged plastic waste and the per capita discharge was the highest for Oceania, followed by North America and South America.

The lowest per capita mismanaged plastic waste and the per capita discharge was for Europe, followed by Asia and finally Africa.

The rich western countries have always been infamous for sending away their plastic waste (mostly non-recyclable / economically unfeasible to recycle) to the developing countries in Asia.

China was the highest recipient of the plastic waste from developed nations, until it introduced its sword policy in 2017, which put a cap on the contamination level of plastic waste being sent into the country.

Post the policy level intervention from China, most of this plastic waste has been diverted to Asian countries like Vietnam. This was made possible because developed nations have stringent policies and monitoring around plastic waste, which is seriously lacking in the developing countries, especially in Asia and Africa.

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