This Earth Day, if you see a gum wrapper or water bottle on the ground, the first thing you should do is pick it up and find a home for it in a trash can or a recycling bin. After that, think for a moment about how much that litter costs when it’s piled among the mountains just like it that pollute every corner of the Earth. The U.S. alone spends about $11.5 billion every year cleaning up litter, according to Keep America Beautiful — and that number seems likely to keep growing thanks to COVID-19.
Who Pays For It All?
Before looking at how things are getting worse, let’s look at the current situation. Businesses pay about 80% — or $9.1 billion — of that $11.5 billion annual cleanup bill. That might seem like someone else’s problem, but business owners meet that obligation by paying their employees less, charging you more for goods and services, or both. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) pay for another $769 million and educational institutions pick up the tab for another $240 million. The rest is paid for by states, counties and municipalities — with your tax dollars.
Those dollar figures, however, are from the good old days before the virus.
Although the pandemic killed jobs and stalled the economy, COVID-19 did succeed in boosting one kind of production — the production of trash and litter.
Cigarettes: The Everywhere Litter
If trash had a hall of fame, cigarettes would take top billing as the world’s most littered consumer product by a mile. According to the Truth Initiative, smokers litter 4.5 trillion butts every single year. The 4,000-plus cancer-causing chemicals found in cigarettes — including arsenic, the key ingredient in rat poison — leach into the soil and water. They start fires all the time when flicked out of car windows and even when they don’t, their filters are packed with non-biodegradable plastics that make 1.69 billion pounds of toxic litter every year. Cigarette butts account for more than one-third of all litter collected.
All told, America’s cities spend between $3 million and $16 million picking up after smokers. But here, too, those are peachy pre-COVID-19 numbers. According to USA Today, cigarette sales spiked dramatically in 2020, which means that $16 million tab will surely rise as more and more butts hit the sidewalks, drop into storm drains and float toward their final destination — the ocean.
2020 Was the Year of Plastic, the Mother of All Earth Destroyers
Cigarettes are the world’s most commonly littered individual product, but in terms of volume, environmental destruction and the cost of cleanup, plastic is the planet’s archnemesis — and same as with cigarettes, COVID-19 made a bad problem much worse.
According to ABC News, the average household generated 4 pounds of plastic waste per person per day before the virus emerged. That number grew by 25%-30% during the pandemic, and much of that new plastic never made it into recycling bins or even landfills. Instead, it found its way into rivers, flood channels, and eventually, the ocean — groups that track plastic waste reported 70% increases in cleanup hauls.
Several forces were at work during the great plastic-ing of the COVID-19 world, according to a 2020 report from Science magazine:
- Cheap oil made plastic production more profitable than recycling: With highways empty and factories closed during virus shutdowns, demand for oil cratered early in the pandemic. The price of petroleum — a key ingredient in plastic — fell so low that it became cheaper to make new plastic than it would have been to recycle the mountains that already exist.
- One-and-done plastic-based PPE became standard: Just as it was becoming more profitable to manufacture new plastic while recycling less of the old stuff, demand for single-use plastic-based PPE exploded. As early as February 2020, China alone was already producing 116 million single-use masks per day — 12 times more than usual. Hospitals just in the city of Wuhan were dumping 240 tons of single-use plastic-based medical waste every single day.
- COVID-19-induced lifestyle changes required lots of plastic: Plastic demand soared throughout the pandemic for all kinds of purposes, but food containers and bubble wrap for package deliveries accounted for the lion’s share of new plastic as people stayed home and ordered in. According to Science magazine, “The global plastic packaging market size is projected to grow from $909.2 billion in 2019 to $1.01 billion by 2021, at a compound annual growth rate of 5.5 percent, mainly due to pandemic response.”
The World’s Plastic Problem Comes with a 13-Figure Price Tag
It’s hard to tabulate the exact cost of plastic litter alone — the statistics associated with the problem boggle the mind. The world has created 6.3 billion tons of plastic waste since 1950, more than 90% of which was never recycled. Ten million tons of plastic finds its way into the ocean every year — that’s a full garbage truckload every minute. One million marine animals are killed by plastic every year and at the current rate, by 2050, there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish.
When all the indirect costs are included, marine plastic litter alone was costing the world $2.5 trillion a year, according to the Guardian — and that’s before COVID-19 made more garbage, more cigarettes, more plastic and more pollution. This Earth Day, think about those numbers when you encounter a lazy litterer — or even worse, in a moment of weakness, if you consider becoming one yourself.
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