Conservation organizations around the world are warning us of a surge in ocean plastic waste prompted by the pandemic while only in the U.S. the demand for single-use plastic is estimated to have increased by 250-300% during the crisis. Besides increased usage of protective equipment, e-commerce and takeaway meals have become even prevalent during lockdowns generating more packaging waste.
If that didn’t scare you, learn that over eight million metric tons of plastic enter our oceans annually. This equates to one garbage truck full of plastic being dumped into the oceans every minute. What’s more, it’s estimated that by 2050, there will be more plastic in the ocean by weight than fish.
That’s tragic on so many levels. Fish, whales, turtles, seabirds, and many other animals are ingesting plastic and dying en masse. There are numerous studies in the process, all exploring the link between human health complications and consuming fish that contain microplastic (bottles and more other single-use items that have deteriorated in water). Oceanic ecosystems around us have been wrecked by plastic waste.
All this, of course, happened before the pandemic. At the outset, social distance policies kept people off the road and out the skies, improving the air quality around the world. In China, the prolonged shuttering of factories temporarily cleared the country‘s notorious smog and considerably lowered pollution rates. Maybe an even more enduring result of the pandemic may be the wildlife conservation efforts in Asia, due to improved scrutiny of the wet market (where it’s thought the virus has made the leap to humans). Vietnam, one of the biggest ‘wrongdoers’, has recently banned all wildlife imports and shut down all of its wildlife markets. The good news has been, – well, actually good.
Yet, we cannot say the same about our oceans, which have been fiercely struck in recent months. The pandemic caused an estimated global use of 65 billion gloves and 129 billion face masks every month. If we sewed together all of the masks produced already and expected to be manufactured, we’d be able to cover the entire region of Switzerland.
The worst about the excess of masks and gloves is that they can be found everywhere in our rivers and oceans today – even mistaken for jellyfish, a favoured food for sea turtles. As of their elastic components, protection masks have also increased the likelihood of entanglement for a wide variety of animals, fish and birds.
Single-use plastic impact ‘will last forever.’
Action is imperative to reduce “unnecessary” single-use plastic usage during COVID-19 pandemic. The lockdown pushed many chains to ban the use of reusable plastic items such as bottles and cups for safety reasons, while single-use face masks can be found dumped on beaches.
Microplastic specialist Dr Christian Dunn claims the damage of single-use plastic “is likely to last forever”, and government action is necessary. In the so-called Blue Planet aftermath, corporations vowed to limit packaging and the use of disposable cups, with people urged to refill and reuse to lessen single-use plastic.
While only in Belgium we learn about separate waste prevention programmes for each of the country’s regions, the Welsh government plans to send zero waste to landfills by 2050, with 70 percent of waste being recycled.
Yet, when the pandemic hit, some refill programs were paused, because of the concerns about the spread of the virus, and community groups all over Wales report a surge in litter. The rise in litter, especially of single-use plastic such as single-use masks and plastic bottles, would have a lasting impact.
The World Health Organisation advises us to use three-layer protective masks in communities unless they are high risk, vulnerable or in a medical setting. However, what most tend to overlook is that masks contain plastic, therefore cannot be recycled with the government guidance encouraging people to drop them in their household bin.
Recycling systems around the world are ceasing under the COVID-19 budget strains.
So, where does all this waste go?
In the Western world, much of it ends up either in North American landfills or incinerated in Europe, while a small amount – say 10% on average – gets recycled. The U.S. has nearly 9,000 recycling points, most of which are tied to local budgets run by municipalities.
While states struggle to carry the brunt of COVID-19- related health and joblessness expenses, most municipalities are postponing their recycling services. States like Illinois and Peoria have already slashed recycling programs while New Orleans and Omaha are considering substantial cuts to save money.
In the developing countries, as we well know, plastic often ends up mismanaged in open bins, eventually oozing into our environment, ultimately forcing its route into rivers and then oceans. Much of the financial support meant to aid waste management infrastructure in developing has been reappropriated due to the virus. As a result, what happens in Europe and in the U.S. is even further augmented in Brazil, Indonesia, Kenya, India, Haiti, and Guatemala.
Over fifteen million waste pickers in the developing countries pick up plastic waste out of massive open landfills, streets, and in many cases, off beaches. Recently, some waste-picking communities have been compelled to collect twice as much plastic waste as they once did for the same amount – this discourages waste pickers who’d rather pick up more valuable materials.
These waste pickers, as far as the ocean plastic solution goes, are an integral piece of the puzzle – and the most valuable line of defence between oceans and our plastic waste.
Is there something we can do?
Yes. We can apply the two most simple, yet effective strategies to keep our plastic out of the ocean:
- Reduce plastic use
Imagine all the plastic you use every day. Look around you. How many plastic items can you see? Being more conscious of why and how you use plastic is the first step to cut plastic use—committing to improving your habits by limiting the use of single-use and disposable plastics, recycling or reusing them.
- Participate in a clean-up.
We can volunteer, anytime and anywhere. Why not pick up marine litter in your local community?