Catalan Water Research Institute research and innovation for the sustainable use of water

Damià Barceló participates in one of the first published global critical assessments that reflects the lethal effects of COVID-19 on regulations against plastic pollution

Tuesday, 07 July 2020

Damià Barceló, director of theCatalan Water Research Institute (ICRA), one of most universally cited Catalan scientists, recently named Doctor Honoris Causa by the University of Lleida (pending due to COVID-19), has participated in one of the first studies at an international level that makes a global critical assessment of the effects of COVID-19 on the fight and laws against plastic pollution.

This study has just been published by the international journal Science of the Total Environment , with the title Rethinking and optimizing plastic waste management under the COVID-19 pandemic: policy solutions based on the redesign and reduction of single-use plastics and personal protective equipment and signed by a team of experts from the University of Aveiro (Portugal), Dalhousie University, of Halifax (Canada), and of theICRA , integrated by Ana L. Patrício Silva, Joana C. Prata, Tony R. Walker, Diana Campos, Armando C. Duarte, Amadeu MVM Soares, Damià Barceló and Teresa Rocha-Santos.

The study presents a reasoned summary of the current situation and existing directives on plastics and the evolution of government policies on plastics use, production and waste management during the pandemic. Tracks the main international agreements (Basel Convention, 2019; the United Nations Law of the Sea, UNCLOS; the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships, MARPOL; GESAMP and GPLM, among others). It makes a very interesting world map where it marks the legal limits in force in each country regarding Single Use Plastics, stipulated by the EU (Commission, Parliament and Council), USA and up to 127 countries. And he does another one on the policy of plastic bags, where he shows the countries where the ban or a fee governs, which are in dispute. And he still makes a third about the mandatory use of masks by country.

Some figures

Single-use plastics accounted for 46% of global plastic waste in 2018. With COVID-19, this number will increase significantly.

According to WWF (World Wild Fund For Nature) at least 10 million masks are being introduced into nature every month: on the assumption that there is incorrect management of only 1% of the waste – in reality this figure can be at least 10 times more – we have that 1% represents about 30,000-40,000 kg of masks that go into the natural environment every month at least.

The management of the increase in plastic waste due to COVID-19 is done through landfills or by burning them. Therefore there will be an increase in greenhouse gases and toxic compounds.

In China the production of masks has increased by 450% in one month (from 20 million to 110 million in February 2020). Their fabrics contain polypropylene or polyethylene that ends up in microplastic microfibers at the bottom of the oceans and sediments.

Next to the increase in production, there is the increase in the bad management of plastic waste which has fatal effects on the causes of climate change.


The current COVID-19 pandemic has made evident humanity’s dependence on plastic as a material and the fragility of the waste management system and the reduction of plastics. Pandemics are not new in human history and therefore the search for solutions must be a priority, now more than ever. And this implies direct links between politicians, industry and research.

Some of the directives already adopted on plastics must be implemented now more than ever. During COVID-19, the use of single-use plastics and personal protective equipment has multiplied, and therefore it is a priority to rethink and redesign plastics (for example, the development of affordable solutions based on in bio and environmentally friendly materials), together with the improvement of recycling methods to ensure an appropriate end of life for these products. Reusable alternatives should be produced (for example in personal protective equipment) and should be financially incentivized (at the level of the corresponding industrial sector).

With public health as a top priority, the implications of COVID-19 on the environment continue to be underestimated. While the number of studies examining the environmental impact of the COVID-19 pandemic (eg, air quality, carbon footprint) is growing by the day, the scope remains unclear of the physical “impact” of plastic pollution during COVID-19 and what will happen in the long term.

The mass of waste generated due to COVID-19 actually threatens existing methods of waste management, and means that the spread/contamination of plastics can pose very serious risks to both environmental and human health. This is why it is imperative to increase the monitoring (aquatic, terrestrial and aerial studies) of plastic waste after COVID-19 around the world. The social movement of Citizen Science must be encouraged because it can be a great contribution to this cause. In addition, priority should be given to studies examining the fate, behavior, degradability, and effects of personal protective equipment and its additives, which are a potential platform for pathogens and have adsorbent capacity for chemical contaminants. Plastics production should be decoupled from fossil fuel-based resources such as petroleum.