Opinions are divergent. Many say that the pandemic, because it locked us at home and, for its own reasons of origin (which are also controversial), made us reflect on our relationship with the environment.
During social isolation in our homes, we watched the media on a daily basis reporting the decreases in CO2 and NO2 emissions, the main greenhouse gases, due to the reduction in industrial activity. We have also seen newspapers reporting the reappearance of animals in their natural habitats, which are no longer populated due to high levels of pollution.
But what was the real environmental impact of the COVID-19 pandemic?
Not everything is good news regarding the impact on the environment and the problem is above all in protective equipment (EPIS). In an effort to protect humanity from the spread of the virus, world health agencies have recommended the widespread use of gloves and masks and hand hygiene through disinfectant substances such as alcohol gel.
The result of that? Months later, in countries that already have some permission for lack of definition, what we see when we go out on the streets are the same EPISs that are widely thrown into the streets and parks of cities. Once disposed of incorrectly, all of this material will inevitably end up in rivers and oceans. And even when properly disposed of (recommendations by the World Health Organisation), they are configured in tons of additional plastic to the already serious problem of plastic pollution.
The WWF (World Wide Fund for Nature) estimates that, even if only 1% of all masks end up in the oceans, they are about 40 tons flooding them. The bill is simple, 1% is equivalent to 10 million masks per month dispersed in the environment, and the weight of each mask is about four grams. Not to mention the load of the gloves and the thousands of alcohol gel packs.
According to environmentalist NGO OceansAsia, based in Hong Kong, approximately 300 million tons of plastic are produced worldwide each year, with more than 13 million entering the oceans annually. Due to the current outbreak of COVID-19, suddenly there is a population of 7 million people wearing one to two masks a day, the amount of waste generated will be substantial, ”says Gary
Stokes, director and founder of the NGO.
Simple disposable masks usually contain polypropylene (PP), and other more complex and expensive masks include polyurethane (PUR) and / or polyacrylonitrile (PAN), all plastic substances. Plastic, as we know, has a useful life of approximately 450 years and never degrades completely, but it shrinks into smaller pieces of plastic called microplastics.
The adverse effects of this debris are far reaching. Once these are discarded in an animal’s natural habitat – be it land or water – this can cause, at the very least, animals to mistake this garbage for food, causing possibilities of entanglement, asphyxiation, ingestion and death. “It’s just another item of marine debris,” says Strokes, comparing the masks to plastic bags or straws. “It is neither better nor worse, just another item that we are leaving as a legacy for the next generation.”
The French nonprofit Opération Mer Propre, whose activities include regular garbage collection along the Côte d’Azur, began to sound the alarm in late May. The divers discovered what the organization’s Joffrey Peltier described as “cowardly waste” – dozens of gloves, masks and bottles of hand sanitizer under the Mediterranean waves, mixed with the common garbage from disposable cups and aluminum cans.
Gary Stokes, of Oceans Asia, cited the example of the isolated and uninhabited islands of Soko, located south of the international airport. He said he initially found 70 masks discarded on a 100-meter stretch of beach, and that when he returned, a week later, there were more than 30 others. ”
In an attempt to reduce this impact, government agencies and NGOs around the world are educating the population to use reusable masks, leaving the use of disposable masks solely and exclusively to health professionals, and to replace whenever possible the use of alcohol gel by a greater number washing hands with soap and water.
As for disposal, according to WHO, dirty fabrics and used masks should be thrown only in dumpsters with a lid, while any medical equipment used by affected patients and hospital staff should be sterilized and burned at high temperatures in dedicated incinerators. Unfortunately, however, not all regions are able to adequately deal with the sudden increase in clinical waste generated as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak.
The spotlight is now on managing clinical solid waste treatment worldwide and how effective its measures are. While healthcare institutions and private waste management companies in some countries are already stepping up their services, it is also just as important for governments to step up and find solutions quickly. At the same time, it is also the responsibility of each individual to follow the necessary guidelines when disposing of their masks and other medical equipment.
After all, it is paradoxical to deal with a global health crisis caused by a history of poor choices and attitudes towards the planet following the same inconsequential and irresponsible behavior. We must, once and for all, learn what the consequences of our choices are and take extreme responsibility for them. Only then will we have any hope of reversing the bad path we are leaving for the future of our history.