The COVID-19 pandemic has necessitated certain lifestyle changes for humans around the world. Because of the way that the virus is spread, health experts advise the use of face masks, frequent hand washing and maintaining physical distancing as part of measures to curtail the spread of the disease. In fact, face coverings are now a legal requirement in many public spaces around the world.
What constitutes coronavirus waste?
In the past few months, the use of surgical face masks and gloves has surged in many parts of the world. We now have millions of people using and disposing 1 to 2 masks on a daily basis. Between the end of February and mid-April this year, more than a billion items of personal protective equipment were given out in the UK alone.
Waterlogged masks, gloves, hand sanitizer bottles and other coronavirus waste are already being found on our seabeds and washed up on our beaches, joining the plastic and other waste that find their way into our oceans.
Coronavirus waste has become a new form of pollution as single-use personal protective equipment (PPE) floods our ocean.
Some organisations are calling attention to the problem of coronavirus waste. French clean-up charity Opération Mer Propre is among those calling for action using photos and videos containing disturbing evidence of this new form of pollution.
OceansAsia also flagged the growing number of masks being discovered during its plastic pollution research. Masses of masks were found on the Soko Islands, a small cluster off the coast of Hong Kong.
How is the waste causing harm?
Discarded face masks and gloves constitute a major threat to marine life in our rivers, oceans and other water bodies. A mask that is ingested by a local turtle, for instance, could easily get stuck in its digestive system, eventually killing it.
Most surgical masks contain or are made of polypropylene which does not break down quickly. When they end up in our oceans, they do not disappear but break down slowly into micro-plastic. These micro-plastics find their way into food chains with devastating effects.
Marine plastic pollution is a serious environmental problem. It is estimated that over 100,000 marine mammals, turtles and sea birds are killed by marine plastic annually. Marine plastic absorbs toxins which poison the animals that accidentally ingest it.
Already, some 8 million tonnes of plastics enter our ocean every year, adding to the estimated 150 million tonnes already circulating in marine environments. Coronavirus waste contributes a significant amount of contaminated and plastic waste to our serious global plastic problem.
The pandemic has contributed to an overall increase in medical waste as well. There has also been a surge in packaging waste from deliveries during the quarantine/lockdown. Restrictions on import and export and decline in cargo transportation mean that large amounts of food have also gone to waste. And as this organic waste decays it will release greenhouse gases, contributing to climate change.
What is the way forward?
The COVID-19 pandemic as no doubt overwhelmed a lot of services in many communities such as waste collection, disposal and recycling. However, everyone of us has a responsibility to ensure that all coronavirus waste are discarded safely and properly.
There is an urgent need for public education on the proper ways to dispose surgical masks and gloves after use. Doing these will not only protect human health by preventing further spread of the disease but also do the environment a lot of good.
People should also embrace the use of non-surgical, reusable cloth masks. This reduces the pressure and demand for surgical masks, making them available to health workers who need them most.
Governments need to act now to ensure a green recovery that incentivizes sustainability. Economic stimuli should focus on green initiatives in order to minimize the risk of a sudden upsurge in polluting activity as construction and manufacturing are used to drive recovery from the global downturn the virus has created.
As the world unites to fight this disease, let′s strive to protect our oceans, marine life, wild life and entire environment from coronavirus waste and other threats.
A healthy world benefits us all!