There are currently 8 million metric tons of plastic in the oceans, with two garbage trucks of plastic being dumped into the earth’s oceans every minute. Since the massive spread of COVID-19 began in late December 2019, the demand for COVID-19 PPE has increased, resulting in a significant increase in ocean plastic pollution.
Single plastic use has been an ongoing threat to the environment and its ecosystems. Models have projected that by 2050, there will be more plastic by weight than fish in the oceans. These projections came from before the COVID-19 global pandemic. With COVID-19, people have been social distancing, working from home, and avoiding transportation on the roads and in the skies. This has drastically improved carbon emissions and significantly lowered pollution rates worldwide. However, the same cannot be said for plastic pollution in our oceans.
Due to the contagious and quickly spreading disease of COVID-19 protective measures have been implemented on a large scale, such as social distancing, quarantining, and using personal protective equipment (PPE), including masks, gloves, gowns, mouthpieces, etc. The progress made to stop plastic pollution is digressing due to the increased demand for PPE. Plastic, single-use plastic, in particular, is the primary material used to make PPE, causing an increase in the use and disposal of this material.
The global concern for defeating the pandemic and preventing deaths and infections has produced side effects that are now affecting plastic waste and environmental damage that were pre-existing to COVID-19. Many corporations and governments worldwide have had to sacrifice sustainable practices to protect the health of the community. Funding that would go towards recycling programs and waste management has gone towards protecting the human population against the global pandemic, resulting in open dumping into waterways. Gloves and masks have found their way into rivers and oceans and causes the protective gear to be easily mistaken for jellyfish, a favorite food of sea turtles. This is just one example, as much of the PPE is causing birds, fish, and other species living in the oceans to become entangled and trapped and eventually die, not being able to escape the non-biodegradable materials.
We are currently moving backward in the reduction of plastic waste and preventing waste from polluting our oceans. Many countries have been already working towards implementing waste management and programs in aiding the reduction of plastic consumption, but the pandemic has caused postponement in such plans. Due to COVID-19 budget strains, recycling systems around the world are suffering and put on hold to take care of the COVID-19-related health and unemployment costs. Many municipalities have suspended their recycling services due to the pandemic.
Before COVID-19, single-plastic production and use were more of a global concern. Unfortunately, the pandemic has brought out our vulnerabilities to plastic causing a significant increase in plastic dependence. It is important to find effective alternatives to single-use plastic and encourage movement forward instead of digressing backward to the point of no return.
Some actions are motivated to stress the importance of eliminating plastic waste from entering the oceans. Some urgent actions include:
- Promoting non-healthcare and healthcare workers to use protection items made from environmentally sustainable materials.
- Adopting practices for recycling programs and urging governments on the national level to avoid suspending these programs but continue to make them a priority.
- Requiring companies to make a change in sustainability, ensuring that environmental policies are abided by.
- Encouraging research on the development of alternative materials that are biodegradable and recyclable to implement in COVID-19 PPE.
The need to contain the spread of the COVID-19 virus and protect the health of the population has led us to regress in saving the oceans from plastic pollution. With the struggles that have come from COVID-19, we must continue to work to protect the environment and its species in our oceans by preventing single-use plastics from entering the waterways.
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