COVID-19 Pollution: A Sea of Gloves and Masks

COVID-19 Pollution: A Sea of Gloves and Masks

The increase of ‘one-time use’ causes big concerns for the health of our oceans.

Pre-Covid Pollution was no surprise.

Our oceans act as a giant dumpster when it comes to getting rid of plastics and ‘one-time use’ waste. Millions of metric tons of trash get cycled into our waterways equaling enough to fill over 90 aircraft carriers. In fact, previous calculations predicted that by the year 2050, our plastic waste would outweigh the total number of fish in our oceans.  Thousands of videos, reports, and clean-up efforts around the world all show the horrific effects that waste has on the ocean’s ecosystem. Fish, whales, and even birds consume pieces of trash, mistaking them for common prey while other animals swim through large nettings and plastic rings, getting entangled with no hope of freedom. Multiple reports have shown that the majority of trash thrown into the oceans, affecting the sea life, have been single-use bottles and other non-degradable plastics. This toxic lifestyle change has led to a vast dying off of our beloved and irreplaceable sea creatures.

Then, COVID-19 shifted our priorities.

The sudden requirement of face masks and gloves due to the rapid spreading of COVID-19 has prompted a global usage of close to 129 billion face masks and over 65 billion gloves. In the beginning, however, these masks and gloves were not made for multiple uses. To put things into perspective, if the size was given to the number of masks produced alone, it would fill up the total landmass of Switzerland. The simple issue arises: masks and gloves find their ways into trash cans daily (at a shockingly, rapid rate). The trash, not always being properly disposed of, finds a way into rivers and eventually into oceans, where sea creatures are mistaking them for food or shelter. Since the pandemic,  the disposable masks pose a larger threat than anticipated as even more sea animals are getting entangled in the masks' elastic straps.

Problem #1: The Oil Market Crash

No one expected the sudden oil crash to cause any issue when it came to pollution. However, oil and natural gas are some of the key components in constructing plastics. Therefore, due to the crash, the cost of oil is at an all-time low. Thus, in order to be competitive in the market, it has become important for companies around the world to make their products and containers using cheap, unspoiled plastics.

Problem #2: The Economic Crisis 

Due to constraints with product production and factories hesitating to keep up massive distribution, people are spending less and becoming more money-conscious than ever. Single-use plastics, like water bottles, are on a huge rise due to being much lower-priced than sustainable water bottles. This seems like a simple solution for the average American family trying to survive amidst a pandemic, however, 2020 is easily on track to see the largest amount of plastic waste hit the oceans; up by over 30 percent compared to 2019. If this trend continues without regulation, our way of living will be greatly impacted on a number of different levels. 

Problem #3: Recycling Systems Breakdown

Simply put, the United States was hit with the brunt of coping from COVID-19 on a state-by-state basis, causing major budget constraints and thousands of spending halts. Since landfills are run by municipalities, recycling services and landfill operations have been grid-locked while others have been cut altogether. Due to the panic of trying to return life to normal operations, many states have considered these services non-essential and have reluctantly cut spending to continue proper disposal of trash. 

The Solution: Major Transparency

A project led by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) called ‘ReSource Plastic’ started in June of 2020. Their message is simple: encourage top companies around the world to share their plastic use footprint publicly. This includes more than just sorting bins at franchise companies. They expect big, name-brand companies to share the entire journey of their plastic usage including what happens to it once it leaves their facilities. Full disclosure from major businesses has already led to quick and massive reduction of plastic usage, according to their first report: Transparency Report 2020

Besides keeping big business accountable for their waste journey, the WWF has produced a simple list for everyone to follow: 

  1. Eliminate unnecessary, one-time-use products like straws and water bottles
  2. Prioritize sustainable options 
  3. Double global recycling spending/action
  4. Fill data gaps by encouraging more big business companies to be fully transparent

If these suggestions are heeded and clean-up activist groups are supported, by 2030 (just 10 years later), we could see a complete reverse of the threat on our oceans from plastic waste and usage. 

Sources: “COVID-19 Has Worsened the Ocean Plastic Pollution Problem” by: Dave Ford at Scientific American. Published on August 17, 2020.

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