As pandemic protracts, Covid trash surges
Items that have become commonplace along with the emergence of Covid-19 are entering the second part of their lives — as garbage.
Everything from anti-droplet masks to plastic screen dividers, daily necessities of the Covid-19 pandemic are making their way to the trash on the double.
Setting up acrylic plastic screens was part of the solution for managing the many students taking the College Scholastic Ability Test (CSAT) in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic. The Ministry of Education spent 8 billion won ($7.2 million) to install the screens.
The mass of plastic screens together weighs 570 tons and has an area of 135,000 square meters (33 acres), 18 times the size of a soccer stadium. The government said it would "reuse" the acrylic screens in response to concerns of all the waste it would produce.
In one high school in Seoul already, all 380 screens have become trash, worth about 6 million won. "When I took off the screen from the desk to reuse it, it was broken," said a member of the high school staff. "In the end, I called a cleaning company and threw them away."
Recycling the screens is more difficult than originally thought. Critics point out that the problem started with the production process. The screens are not readily recyclable because they have a translucent coating on a composite material, they said.
To recycle such acrylic screens, recycling companies must invest twice as much labor, crushing the acrylic screen after first removing the coating. The cost and utility issues raised by environmental groups were buried in front of the government's "reuse policy."
"The Ministry of Education will take charge of 400,000 screens and direct the schools to reuse them. If they are not reused, the Ministry of Environment will hand them over to recycling companies," said an official of the Ministry of Environment, which decided to first recycle 100,000 of the total 500,000 screens.
The fact that reusing the screens is difficult after they have once been detached and recycling is costly due to the coating is hard to ignore. "Currently, 5 tons [about 0.8 percent of the total 570 tons] of the screens have been recovered from Seoul, Gyeonggi and Incheon," said an official from the Ministry of Environment.
According to the Ministry of Food and Drug Safety, Korea's mask production in 2020 was about 1.7 billion. Based on the size of an adult mask (20 centimeters by 15 centimeters, or 300 square centimeters [47 square inches]), it is 17 times the area of Yeouido (2.9 square kilometers [1 square mile]). These disposable masks are made from plastic polypropylene (PP) and take more than 400 years to decay.
Masks emit harmful substances such as dioxin during incineration. Classified as general garbage, if masks do not make their way through the disposal and incineration processes properly, they may make it into the waterways. Oceans Asia, a marine environmental group in Hong Kong, estimated 1.56 billion disposable masks flowed into the sea last year after the Covid-19 pandemic broke out. Masks then decompose into microplastics, adversely affecting marine animals and ecosystems.
There was also a campaign to cut the ear loops on masks before throwing them away after news broke that sea creatures were getting caught in them. "I saw a picture of a seagull stuck in a mask on the internet. Since then, I've been cutting my mask straps before throwing them away in a standard plastic garbage bag," said Lee Soo-jin, 28, an office worker.
Experts say it is time to come up with a real solution to this Covid trash.
"The government should give tax and other benefits to companies that make products with recycled materials," said Kim Mi-hwa, chairman of the Resource Circulation Social Solidarity. "Without close communication, situations like that of the screens for the CSAT testing sites will repeat."
Alternatives offering consumers a choice in reducing waste is also becoming more popular. Baedal Minjok, Korea's largest delivery application, is said to have received more than 10 billion orders last year opting for "No disposable products" since April 2019. That's more than 10 percent of orders.
"The number of orders excluding disposable products is continuously increasing. We will continue to try to reduce plastic output and increase recycling rates of eco-friendly containers," Baedal Minjok said.
"The disposable economy should evolve into a multi-use economy for the eco-friendly environment," said Lee Dong-hak, head of Garbage Center, a private trash facility.
BY CHOI YEON-SU [email@example.com]