Waste management and the COVID-19 in Brazil

While Brazil had been enacting important laws to ban plastics, which could leverage the market for bioplastics, the 2020 scenario created new habits that reinvigorated the plastic industry worldwide (Prata et al., 2020).

The advent of the pandemic caused by the new coronavirus (Covid-19), announced by the World Health Organization (WHO) in March 2020, has been causing major global impacts. Whereas the number of known infections in Europe decreased, in May 2020 Latin America became an epicenter of the pandemic, driven mainly by the increasing number of cases in Brazil. Nine months after its first known case, Brazil had at least 7.5 million cases – more than the whole of Europe – and more than 190 thousand deaths (World Health Organization, 2020).

Despite the closure of factories and commerce, at the beginning of the pandemic, resulted in the reduction of pollutant emissions into the atmosphere, single-use plastics were once again essential in the individuals’ daily lives, which increased the complexities of plastic waste management. In Brazil, according to data from the Association of Public Cleaning and Special Waste Companies (ABRELPE, Brazil), there was a significant increase in the amount of solid household waste generated (approximately 25%) and a considerable growth in the generation of hospital waste in health care units (10 to 20 times) in 2020 (Abrelpe, 2020).

Amid the risk of transmission of the virus, the population changed its patterns of behavior and consumption (Kalina et al., 2020). The excessive demand for gloves and individual protection masks, as well as plastic packaging for food, hand sanitizer and medicine, causes concern and uncertainty about the environmental advances that we have been seeking and achieving in recent years (Tenenbaum, 2020; Prata et al., 2020).

Safety concerns related to supermarket purchases during Covid-19 have led to a preference by consumers and suppliers for fresh food packaged in plastic containers (to avoid contamination of food and to extend the shelf life) and the use of single-use food packaging, as well as plastic bags to carry groceries (Sousa, 2020).

Despite the lack of any conclusive evidence for reduced risk of viral transmission from disposable bags, the stance adopted by countries integrates the belief in society that plastic is hygienic. However, the ability of the coronavirus to survive on plastic surfaces can be up to three days compared to paper (3 h), cardboard (1 day), fabric (2 days), which contradicts this view (van Doremalen et al., 2020; Malik et. al. 2020; Vanapelli et al., 2021). Furthermore, it is not clear how reusable grocery bags can contribute to greater risk compared to clothing or shoes, a potential risk that can also be mitigated with proper hand hygiene and personal decontamination. (Silva et al., 2021).

The current scenario in Brazil faces changes in its public policies, as in the laws that seek to minimize environmental impacts on plastic pollution and consequently enable the use of bioplastics. Some laws that prohibit the distribution of disposable plastic materials are suspended indefinitely, as is the case of Law No. 17,261 of January 2020 in the municipality of São Paulo. Action against the law was proposed by the Syndicate of the Plastic Material Industry of the State of São Paulo (Sindiplast), with the justification that the ban at this time can cause problems for the health system, given the situation of a pandemic caused by a highly transmissible virus. The reversal of such policies that restrict the use of disposables plastics causes an increase in the generation of waste from these materials, again inducing an unsustainable culture in consumers and contributing to the global problem of pollution caused by plastics (Prata et al., 2020; Klemeš et al., 2020; Silva et al., 2020).

With restricted recycling flows around the world, the management of single-use plastic waste during the Covid-19 pandemic is being affected. The change in the flow of recycling worldwide results in a lower level of separation and, therefore, plastics are mixed with other types of urban waste, which makes it impossible or difficult to separate and reprocess them (Silva et al., 2021). In Brazil, the problem raises even greater concerns because the impact is also significant concerning the income of the waste pickers’ families, who depend on the selective collection of solid waste for survival in Brazil (Dias et al., 2020).

The pandemic scenario in Brazil is extending the waste management challenges in this already fragile waste management system.

Written by Lais R. de Lima, Rafaela F. Gutierrez & Sandra Cruz.