Spokane Journal of Business

Guest Commentary: Coronavirus compounds recycling challenge

Trash knows no boundaries …

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What happens in China doesn’t always stay in China. We learned that a couple of years ago when the Chinese stopped buying massive volumes of the world’s used paper, plastics, and textiles—and again last March when the coronavirus escaped Wuhan and spread across the planet.

Like other nations, China is struggling with the deadly COVID-19 virus and suffocating under mountains of trash its residents generate each day. Wuhan hospitals generated six times as much medical waste at the peak of the outbreak as they did before the crisis began. The daily output of medical waste reached 240 metric tons.

While the pandemic has improved air quality dramatically because people are working from home and not commuting, it has been a headache for recyclers. It has inundated household waste collectors with more recyclables than they can possibly handle. As a consequence, about two-thirds of our recyclables now end up in landfills.

Markets for spent plastics are feeble, and municipal governments, which operate the preponderance of recycling programs, struggle to fund recycling collection, sorting, and storage.

One of the biggest conundrums is finding markets for single-use plastics such as grocery bags, water and soda bottles, and takeout food containers. Styrofoam and plastic food box use rose sharply as indoor dining stopped and restaurants resorted to take-out.

Dave Ford wrote in Scientific American that 2020 is on pace to see 30% more waste than 2019.

According to Reuters, an extra 1,334 tons of plastic waste was generated from takeaway and delivery meals in Singapore during the two-months of stay-home restrictions. 

Since last March, medical waste shot up as well. COVID-19 triggered an estimated global use of 129 billion face masks and 65 billion gloves every month since last March.

The other glitch is more rubbish is making its way into streams, lakes, and oceans. Ford wrote: “Eight million metric tons of plastic waste enter the oceans every year. This equates to one garbage truck’s worth of plastic being dumped into our oceans every minute. … Models project that by 2050, there will be more plastic by weight than fish in the oceans.”

The garbage difficulty is getting worse worldwide, and the coronavirus has acerbated the situation. Every year, we collectively dump a massive 2.12 billion tons of waste. If all this waste were put on trucks, they would go around the world 24 times. By 2035, the World Bank estimates trash volumes will increase by 70% to 3.4 billion tons.

China has the most serious trash issue as its fast-paced economy expands. It surpassed the U.S. as the world’s largest waste generator in 2004. By 2030, the country will likely produce twice as much municipal solid waste as the U.S.

The trash problem, like the coronavirus, doesn’t recognize international boundaries. It is a global environmental ticking time bomb just as important as climate change. COVID-19 has made the situation worse.

Hopefully, greater attention and “good old American ingenuity” can lead us to better solutions.


Don C. Brunell is a business analyst, writer, and retired president of the Association of Washington Business, the state’s oldest and largest business organization. He now lives in Vancouver and can be contacted at theBrunells@msn.com.

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