Italy produced 10% less garbage during its coronavirus lockdown, but environmentalists warn that increased reliance on disposable masks and packaging is imperiling efforts to curb single-use plastics that end up in oceans and seas. Researchers estimate that during the peak months of Italy's lockdown in March and April, the AP reports, urban waste production fell by 500,000 tons. That decrease is enabling dumps in Italy—where trash collection in major cities has often become a hot-button political issue—to absorb the 300,000 tons of extra waste from protective masks and gloves estimated to be used this year, according to the Institute for Environmental Protection and Research. "Substantially, the figures will balance each other by the end of this year," the institute said. But the pandemic, and the PPE it required, dealt a blow to efforts to move away from single-use plastics in many places where they were just becoming mainstream.
The UN, Greenpeace, Italy's Marevivo environmental organization, and other groups are warning that continued reliance on single-use plastics will pose longer-term risks to the environment. That's particularly true for a country with a long coastline along the Mediterranean Sea, which is plagued by the tiny bits of broken-down plastic known as microplastics. "We don't have an estimate yet of how much of those objects were dumped in the environment, but what is sure is that all those that have been abandoned sooner or later will reach the sea," said a Greenpeace Italy official. In 2018, researchers found that the presence of microplastics on surface seawater off Italy's coasts was comparable to levels found in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the collection of ocean debris that spans part of that ocean. "There's no area of the Mediterranean now where plastic hasn't impacted," a researcher added.