We all know that proper handwashing and wearing face masks reduce the spread of Covid-19 and other viral diseases, such as flu and cold. But coronavirus waste, including discarded masks and gloves, is now becoming a new form of pollution.
PPE flood our ocean
The World Economic Forum, a Geneva-based NGO with a mission to improve the state of the world by engaging business, academic, political, and other leaders to shape the global agenda, industry, and regional agendas, recently shared last June that single-used personal protective equipment floods our ocean today. In the UK alone, more than a billion items of PPE were given out between the end of February and mid-April. That’s equivalent to millions of face masks and gloves being used and thrown away every single day, We Forum added, "How much more if we count the healthcare waste in other countries?"
It is not difficult to see why environmentalists and conservationists in different countries are now sounding the alarm as to where these single-use products end up. The NGO warns that hand sanitizer bottles, gloves, and waterlogged masks, and other coronavirus waste are now washed up on our beaches and found in seabeds. They have become a part of the day-to-day debris in ocean ecosystems.
French clean-up charity Opération Mer Propre is among the organizations calling for action. Translated in English, Laurent Lombard of the said charity wrote via Facebook, “How do you feel about swimming with Covid-19 this summer?” It also cautioned the public that soon, there may be more face masks than jellyfish in the waters of the Mediterranean.
Covid-19 face masks and microplastic fibers
In a study that appeared in the US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health, Oluniyi O. Fadare from the State Key Laboratory of Environmental Chemistry and Ecotoxicology in China and Elvis D. Okoffo from Queensland Alliance for Environmental Health Sciences (QAEHS) also shared that Covid-19 face masks are a potential source of microplastic fibers in the environment.
They said that although the disposable face masks were primarily created for the protection of health-care workers to prevent occupational hazards, even non-medical professionals have adopted the use of said masks during the outbreak of Covid-19. More so, authorities even recommended the masses to use face masks. However, single-use face masks are made from polymers, such as polyester, polyethylene, polycarbonate, and polystyrene.
Producing single-use face masks from polymers
Disposable face masks consist of three layers, the inner layer (made of soft fibers), the middle layer (melt-blown filter), and the outer layer (nonwoven fibers). The middle layer is the main filter laying produced by the fabrication of nanofibers and microfibers, where the melted polymer is released through the tiny nozzles. But with the increase of manufacturing and consumption of face masks in the world has also given rise to an environmental challenge. These face masks have added to the vast plastic particle and plastic waste in the environment.
OceansAsia, an organization committed to research and advocacy on marine pollution, reported the presence of face masks in the Hong Kong ocean. It was also observed along drainage and highway in Nigeria. Fadare and Okoffo pointed out that single-use polymeric materials have been a significant source of plastic pollution in the environment.
It takes 500 years to biodegrade in the ocean
Database company Statista also shows that it can take 500 years for plastic items to biodegrade in a marine environment. A cigarette butt can biodegrade for 10 years in the ocean, a plastic grocery bag 20 years, Styrofoam cup 50 years, aluminum cans 200 years, plastic beverage holder 400 years, disposable diaper 450 years, plastic bottle 450 years, and fishing line 600 years.
Meanwhile, the United Nations Environment Programme shared that 69 countries in the world have passed a partial or full ban on plastic bags that have a great impact on the production of marine litter. In Africa, for instance, Botswana bans plastic bags that are thinner than 24 microns while Cameroon bans non-biodegradable plastic bags that are less than or equal to 60 microns. In Asia and the Pacific, Bangladesh bans plastic bags that are 20 microns or less while China bans plastic shopping bags less than 0.025 mm in thickness (ultrathin plastic bags).
In Europe, Italy bans non-compostable lightweight plastic carrier bags but the exemption was given to reusable bags that are thicker than 200 microns and made of at least 30% recycled plastic intended to carry food products or thicker than 100 microns.
In April, Statista also determined the daily production volume of medical face masks in China. It shows that the country was producing around 450 million medical masks every day in April, 3,400,000 of which were N95 masks and 446,600,000 were other surgical masks.
Greater packaging waste from online orders
We Forum added that despite the temporary decline in carbon emissions because of lockdowns, which meant less industrial activity and fewer people were traveling, there are still concerns that the pandemic could divert the attention of the government away from the green issue.
As more people were ordering online, the quarantine economy has likewise led to greater packaging waste. It’s a “new type of pollution,” the NGO said. It’s also concerning that recycling programs in some countries have been paused. Unless economic stimuli will focus on environmental initiatives, there is a risk of a sudden increase in polluting activity as manufacturing and construction are now used to drive recovery from the downturn that Covid-19 has created.
In the UK, business sand climate spokeswoman Sarah Olney meanwhile told BBC that wearing face coverings is important to keep people safe. Yet, it should not cost the earth. Since it is already clear that single-use face masks are creating an “enormous” plastic waste, we can consider environmentally-friendly or other reusable alternatives, especially outside the clinical settings. Governments from around the world should have guidance on how to safely dispose of a PPE and how when to wear a cloth face-covering instead.
Plastic and microplastic pollution, whether piling up on the coastlines or in oceans, are contributing to the climate crisis. May this be a wake-up call for everyone that we have to find ways to renew and rebuild as we emerge from the pandemic.