How Covid-19 renews the world's plastic problem
Tuesday, June 02 2020
How Covid-19 renews the world's plastic problem
Saikiran Kannan || Singapore || May 30, 2020 ||UPDATED: May 30, 2020 22:34 IS
There is a serious threat of our oceans and landfills getting choked with millions and billions of such single-use masks and gloves. (Photo: AP)
hen coronavirus sent cities and countries into lockdowns, the abrupt transition gave Mother Nature a joyride -- the Himalayas became visible from the plains of Punjab, blue skies emerged out of New Delhi's notorious smog and dirty waterways sparkled once again.
A cleaner environment has perhaps been the only source of delight during the otherwise gloomy shutdowns.
But the celebrations are short-lived as it turns out that the pandemic itself may compound the threat to ecology.
A report by the World Wide Fund for Nature has approximated the quantity of masks and gloves that may end up in oceans. "If even only 1 per cent of the masks were disposed of incorrectly and perhaps dispersed in nature this would result in 10 million masks per month dispersed in the environment," the WWF reported.
Italy, for example, estimated a need of 1 billion masks and half-a-billion gloves for the month of May soon after the lifting of its lockdown phase, the WWF warned.
Considering that the weight of each mask is about 4 grams, it would entail the dispersion of over 40,000 kilos of plastic in nature: a dangerous scenario that must be defused, the report warns.
The implications are already beginning to show.
Gary Stokes is a professional photographer, diving instructor and a co-founder of OceansAsia, which is an NGO that focuses on investigating and researching wildlife crimes.
On February 29, Gary wrote a Facebook post documenting the levels of plastic wastage in the beaches of Hong Kong.
He reveals "the team noticed a new arrival to the beach, the surgical mask. Besides the obvious disgust in hygiene mentality, the interesting part for us is seeing the timing. With such a massive social change (everyone wearing masks), it has taken 6 weeks to see the effects wash up on our beaches. Surgical masks would possibly have been there before the Covid-19 virus in very small numbers, but no way on the scale we witnessed. We have been on this beach twice a month for 5 months."
The situation is the same in Europe as well. Activist Laurent Lombard of France shot the below video in the waters of Antibes, near Cannes on the French Riviera.
He too documented his dive underwater on a Facebook post capturing several pairs of latex gloves, surgical masks and other face coverings.
Laurent wrote "knowing that more than 2 billion disposable masks have been ordered, soon there will be more masks than jellyfish in the waters of the Mediterranean...!"
Ever since the Covid-19 virus escaped China and started to create havoc across the continents, governments have been frenetically looking to procure millions of personal protective equipment, or the PPEs, to ensure their frontline workers, doctors and other frontline workers stay well protected.
There is still a shortage of PPEs in many nations and the agencies are doing their best to reuse the equipment and manage with whatever available resources.
The majority of the single-use face masks in the market are non-biodegradable.
This means they are not environmentally friendly. Surgical face masks are made with non-woven fabric.
The material most commonly used to make them is polypropylene, a form of plastic, as this has better bacteria filtration and air permeability while remaining less slippery than a woven cloth.
There is a serious threat of our oceans and landfills getting choked with millions and billions of such single-use masks and gloves.
Many states in India like Tamil Nadu brought in strict measures to avoid the use of single-use plastics (plastic bags) from daily use right from restaurants to grocery shops and shopping malls.
Countries like the USA and the UK are already seeing used gloves and masks getting discarded in roads and parks.
Often, rains wash these down to the sewers and eventually into a river body. This then will get into the ocean bodies posing a lifetime problem.
A study conducted on the percentage of non-recycled and non-incinerated amounts of plastic that lie in landfills across the world pegged the levels at 4,977 metric tonnes in the year 2015.
This number is expected to reach 12,000 metric tonnes by the year 2050.
Another study predicts that the very process of processing and manufacturing plastics will result in emissions that will make up 15 per cent of the total greenhouse gas emissions.
Unlike other plastic wastes, the size and nature of masks and gloves can make them look like possible food particles for sea turtles or other fishes under the sea.
The United Nations estimates that around 13 million tons of plastic wastes are dumped into the sea every year.
Two decades ago, a deep-sea submersible descended into the Mariana Trench, the deepest part of the ocean.
In the middle of the Western Pacific, at a depth of 10,988 metres, it encountered a lone plastic bag. Scientists till today believe that it’s the world’s deepest known piece of plastic rubbish. And it will take 400 to 1,000 years to disintegrate.
Handling Medical Waste
During the peak of the pandemic in Wuhan, apart from hospitals, new medical waste plants were also built to cater to the huge influx of medical wastes, mainly consisting of the PPEs.
It is said that the daily medical waste at peak amounted to around 225 metric tonnes. The major issue is that unlike normal medical wastes, the PPEs during this pandemic are spread across areas, and not just around hospitals.
Handling of medical waste is not stipulated outside certain areas where they are usually handled. This will pose a major problem for daily civic workers, who handle the garbage and waste management in cities and rural parts.
The PPEs, like gloves and masks, may still carry the Covid-19 infection upon discard.
This is why it is a very critical process associated with the pandemic. It is imperative that even waste management workers are equipped with PPEs to prevent picking up an infection from these medical wastes.
In England, the NHS has classified used PPEs as infectious and offensive and hence these are regularly sent to incineration plants where they are burnt at high temperatures to destroy any stray amounts of viruses that may be present. Incineration remains to be the best working solution as of now worldwide.
A study by the New England Journal of Medicine says plastics carry the virus longer than other surfaces, sometimes up to 3 days.
In Singapore, the National Environment Agency stipulates that aside from medical waste employees, public waste workers, who serve the domestic and trade premises, must also be protected with PPEs and hand sanitizers.
In India, the Central Pollution control board has released a revised version of its guidelines to handle the biomedical waste. This focuses on handling the waste generated in the handling of the current pandemic and stresses the state governments to provide the PPEs for all workers involved in disposing of the biowaste.
The guidelines also prescribe the deep burial of the wastes in case of unavailability of a biomedical waste treatment facility.
Past experiences during H1N1, swine flu and Nipah outbreaks have enabled India to be wary of the seriousness involved.
Cloth-based reusable masks are something that many governments across the world are distributing to the general public in order to reduce the use of single-use masks.
The increase in the use of these masks will ensure less reliance on plastic masks amongst the general public, given the post-pandemic world may see the use of facial protection stretch into 2022.
With the WHO and world medical bodies approving the use of cloth masks, it truly is a blessing.
At the same time, medical doctors and health infrastructure will continue using single-use masks owing to various logistical reasons and hence an efficient way of disposing them or recycling them must be at the forefront of innovation in companies that specialise in recycling or manufacturing of PPEs.
For now, though, the pandemic may not be just leaving a long trail of disruption in lifestyles and the economy, but may also upset the ecological balance if medical waste it generates is not handled as it should be.
"Just as citizens have shown themselves to be responsible for following the government's indications to contain the infection by staying at home, now it is necessary that they prove equally responsible in the management of individual protection devices that must be disposed of properly and not dispersed in nature," says WWF Italy president Donatella Bianchi.