Fighting Covid-19 brings new danger

Gary Stokes, founder of the environmental group Oceans Asia, poses with discarded face masks he found on a beach in the residential area of Discovery Bay on the outlying Lantau island in Hong Kong on May 13, 2020. PHOTO | ANTHONY WALLACE | AFP

What you need to know:

  • PPEs, such as face masks, hand sanitisers, protective clothing for medical personnel and gloves are mostly made of or packaged in plastic material.
  • It’s projected that, by 2050, there will be more plastics than fish in oceans with the United Nations saying, 13 million tonnes of plastic is dumped in the sea yearly.

We are at war with a virus”. “We are at war with an invisible enemy”. These are some of the metaphors used by world leaders to describe the Covid-19 pandemic.

But the battle against the surge in coronavirus cases has elicited another ‘war’ that now lurks in the shadows: Plastic pollution. The increased use of personal protective equipment (PPEs) poses an unprecedented challenge to ocean health. But are we ready to battle the new marine pollution?

Amid the worsening public health crisis, major economies are grappling with huge losses resulting from lockdown, movement restrictions and curfews.

FIRST CASE

Kenya recorded its first case of Covid-19 in March. Not surprisingly, in April, the government made the wearing of masks in public mandatory. Further, the World Health Organization (WHO) has indicated that Covid-19 is here to stay — meaning PPEs will be part of our day-to-day consumables.

PPEs, such as face masks, hand sanitisers, protective clothing for medical personnel and gloves are mostly made of or packaged in plastic material. Further, thanks to the highly infectious rate of coronavirus, most are strictly single-use items.

And with the heightened fears of infection, recycling of PPE waste is not an option. Littering and illegal dumping is, therefore, likely to increase accumulation of plastics in the environment, more so since most counties do not have proper waste management strategies.

The use of PPEs may water down the gains of the September 2017 ban on plastic bags and the June 5 one on single-use plastic bottles in parks and beaches. With the social distancing and stay-at-home directives, garbage collectors are reluctant to enter homes, causing dumping near residences, away from landfills, with environmental and health risks to residents.

MORE PLASTICS

It’s projected that, by 2050, there will be more plastics than fish in oceans with the United Nations saying, 13 million tonnes of plastic is dumped in the sea yearly, which is likely to get worse during and after the Covid-19 pandemic.

The 2019 census shows the country has a population of 47.6 million. If half of the people wore disposable masks every day — without taking into consideration medical practitioners, who use more than one daily — 23.8 million of the PPEs would be used every day, or 714 monthly. If only one per cent of these are not correctly disposed of, 7.14 million of them could end up on land every month and a bigger proportion in rivers, lakes and the ocean, mainly through water runoff.

If a mask weighs four grammes, according to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) report, this translates to 28.6 tonnes of plastic dumped in the environment in a month. And that is from masks alone! That poses a big threat to aquatic organisms and, ultimately, the Blue Economy.

Improper disposal of PPE waste will most likely clog drainage systems, leading to flooding during the rainy season. In the ocean, plastics can get into ship propellers during navigation, leading to ship damage and triggering constant repairs, with huge economic losses.

Plastics in the aquatic environment may be mistaken for food and ingested by marine organisms, killing them. They can also entangle aquatic organisms to death.

 Besides, plastics degrade critical habitats such as mangroves and coral reefs, which act as a breeding ground for fish, negatively affecting the fisheries sector. They may also lead to loss of aesthetic value of our beaches and water bodies, rendering tourist destinations less attractive.

WASTE IN OCEANS

But one thing is for sure: With the ‘new normal’ during and after the pandemic, the quantity and variety of waste in oceans will change tremendously.

First, the authorities should conduct public awareness campaigns on the extent and effects of improper disposal of masks. This would instil a sense of responsibility in individuals, of curbing littering and illegal dumping of masks.

Secondly, counties should ensure segregation of waste at source with designated specified PPE waste collection points. Garbage collectors would be equipped with the necessary protective equipment, such as gloves, to motivate the collection of the PPE type of waste and local manufacturers motivated to produce affordable quality reusable masks.

Thirdly, a multisectoral approach is critical to curbing the PPE pollution problem. Data collection on the extent of the spread of PPE pollution is vital for targeted waste reduction.

Lastly, a lasting solution is individual behaviour change from littering and illegal dumping to better waste disposal strategies.

Mr Atuga is a research scientist at Kenya Marine and Fisheries Research Institute. [email protected] @1Papelo

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