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28,000 tons of COVID-19 waste now swirling around in our oceans

surgical mask floating in ocean water
(Image credit: Getty / Joan Manel Moreno)

During the COVID-19 pandemic, more than 28,000 tons (25,000 metric tons) of pandemic-related plastic waste, such as masks and gloves, have ended up in the ocean, according to a new study. 

That's more than 2,000 double-decker buses  worth of waste, The Guardian reported. And within a few years, a portion of those plastic gloves and packaging materials from pandemic purchases could be swirling around the North Pole.

The analysis found that 193 countries produced about 9.2 million tons (8.4 million metric tons) of pandemic-associated plastic waste from the start of the pandemic to mid-August 2021, according to The Guardian. 

The majority of the plastic — about 87.4% — was used by hospitals, while 7.6% was used by individuals. Packaging and test kits accounted for about 4.7% and 0.3% of the waste, respectively, the authors reported in a recent study, published online on Nov. 8 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Related: Sea science: 7 bizarre facts about the ocean 

The team developed a model to predict how much of this plastic waste wound up in the ocean after being discarded. They predicted that, as of Aug. 23, about 28,550 tons (25,900 metric tons) of the plastic debris had already found its way into the oceans, transported there by 369 major rivers, according to The Guardian. 

In three years' time, the majority of the  debris will shift from the surface ocean to beaches and the seafloor, with more than 70% washing onto beaches by year's end, the authors wrote. 

While in the short-term, the trash will mostly impact coastal environments near its original sources, in the long-term, garbage patches may form in the open ocean, the model predicts. For instance, patches may accumulate in the northeast Pacific and the southeast Indian oceans. And plastic that gets swept toward the Arctic Circle will hit a dead-end, and much of it will then swiftly sink to the seabed, the model predicts. The researchers also predict that a so-called circumpolar plastic accumulation zone will form by 2025. 

And "at the end of this century, the model suggests that almost all the pandemic-associated plastics end up in either the seabed (28.8%) or beaches (70.5%), potentially hurting the benthic ecosystems," meaning the deepest regions of the ocean, the authors wrote.

"The recent COVID-19 pandemic has led to an increased demand for single-use plastic, intensifying pressure on this already out-of-control problem," the study authors wrote. "These findings highlight the hotspot rivers and watersheds that require special attention in plastic waste management." 

In particular, the study highlights a need for better systems for collecting, treatmenting and disposing of medical plastic waste in developing countries, to keep it out of rivers, and an overall need to limit the use of single-use plastics and increase the use of sustainable alternatives, where possible, the authors wrote. 

Read more about the new study in The Guardian. 

Originally published on Live Science.

Nicoletta Lanese

Nicoletta Lanese is a staff writer for Live Science covering health and medicine, along with an assortment of biology, animal, environment and climate stories. She holds degrees in neuroscience and dance from the University of Florida and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz. Her work has appeared in The Scientist Magazine, Science News, The San Jose Mercury News and Mongabay, among other outlets.