Covid-19 caused a boom in single-use plastics. Here’s how to fix it

Bertand Aznar

We estimate that in 2016, the world generated 2.01bn tonnes of household waste per year. Waste generation is set to increase by more than 70 per cent, to 3.40bn tonnes, by 2050, more than double the estimated population growth rate, pointing to a real crisis.
In general, the volume of waste generation per capita increases as countries become more prosperous; the richer we are, the more we consume. But there seems to be a trend of decoupling between waste production and prosperity beyond a certain income level. High income countries (with average individual incomes above roughly $80,000 annually) are trending towards lower volumes of waste production and disposal. Countries such as South Korea, for example, have introduced financial incentives to reduce waste and recycle more. In 2021, we will have to maintain this trend – and extend it to lower-income countries.


But, during the Covid-19 crisis, single-use plastics have proliferated. They’re used in packaging to improve safety, by food delivery services and in medical equipment. We have also seen a reduction in good waste-management practices. From Miami in the US to the Bantar Gebang landfill in Indonesia, recycling has halted to limit workers’ contact with waste – or because of a reduced workforce. Many cities have paused plastic-bag bans or charges. And informal waste picking everywhere has declined as pickers try to avoid Covid-19 exposure during waste collection.
In 2021, the resurgence of single-use plastics will continue, with high consumer demand for protective gear and heavily packaged products and food, and increased use of plastics in hospitals and public facilities. These plastics have limited recycling capability and will lead to higher contamination of rivers and oceans.
The need to simultaneously address global waste and the pandemic offers an opportunity to decouple growth from waste by putting in place sustainable waste-management systems and moving towards a more circular approach to its reduction. Promising private-sector initiatives are underway through pooled funding and blended financing, experimentation across the waste-management value chain and digitisation. Circulate Capital is one of a number of funds investing in sustainable waste-management systems in various countries to improve recycling and support a circular approach.


London-based startup ReCircle is developing ways to reclaim raw materials from waste to go back into manufacturing. In 2021, by considering local organics-management options, encouraging use of recyclable materials and increasing the number of schemes across the world that focus on waste prevention, governments will help keep cities healthy and safe while also saving money and reducing landfill.
Sameh Wahba is global director for Urban, Resilience and Land at the World Bank. Silpa Kaza is an urban specialist at the World Bank’s Urban, Resilience and Land Global Practice

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