Quantcast
Environmental News for a Healthier Planet and Life

Help Support EcoWatch

Coronavirus Plastic Waste Polluting the Environment

Popular
A used latex glove is seen abandoned as trash on a street floor on April 6 in Milan, Italy. Vincenzo Lombardo / Getty Images

By Nikolia Apostolou

Over a month into the lockdown and the usually bustling streets of Kalamata, a Greek city southwest of Athens traditionally known for its olives, are largely empty.


As in the rest of Greece, residents of the coastal city are allowed out only in strict circumstances, including for short exercise and grocery shopping. But discarded gloves, wipes and bottles of sanitizer are strewn across parks, sidewalks and roads, as people try to protect themselves and others from infection.

The problem isn't confined to the small Greek city. Similar waste is causing problems in bigger metropolises such as New York and London.

And it has even hit the uninhabited Soko Islands. A few nautical miles from Hong Kong, Gary Stokes from the conservation group OceansAsia found some 100 masks washed up over the course of three visits to the beach.

"We hadn't noticed this many masks before in such a remote location," said Stokes, who suspects they came from nearby China or Hong Kong. "When we found them, it only had been six to eight weeks since people had started using these masks."

Impact on wildlife

Gloves, masks and other personal protective equipment (PPE) are critical for those fighting the pandemic but are also widely used by the public. Still, because they're not always disposed of properly, environmentalists fear negative consequences for wildlife and the fight against plastic pollution.

"If they're thrown on the streets, when it rains the gloves and masks will eventually end up in the sea," said Anastasia Miliou, a marine biologist and research director with the Archipelagos Institute of Marine Conservation based in Greece.

And because waste management problems are systemic in Greece, even gloves and face masks that are put in the trash could ultimately end up in nature.

Even in Hong Kong, where littering is rare, Stokes said there are dozens of other ways masks can reach the sea.

"People are walking, they pull their wallets out and from their pockets a mask accidentally falls," he explained, adding that even if they are put in the garbage, they are light enough to blow away.

And once they get into the water, they pose a threat to marine life.

"[In Hong Kong waters,] we've got pink dolphins and green turtles coming through this place," said Stokes. "A recently published study showed that when plastic is left in the water long enough and algae and bacteria grow on it, it actually smells like food to turtles."

How to properly recycle masks? It's a problem 

PPE items not left to float about in the environment and the sea are not necessarily easy to deal with either, explained Joan Marc Simon, executive director of Zero Waste Europe, a Brussels-based NGO.

He points to the European recycling scheme under which retailers and producers pay for the collection and treatment of plastic packaging. As gloves aren't considered packaging, they cannot be put into household recycling bins, explained Simon.

Even gloves made of latex rubber, a natural product, aren't always an eco-friendly choice, Simon added. It depends on the chemical additives used to produce them, he said, some of which can harm the environment when they decompose.

While it's understandable that sustainability practices backtrack in a crisis, said Richard Thompson, professor and director of the Marine Institute at the University of Plymouth, tackling the plastic waste crisis means not losing sight of the whole life cycle of a product — from design until end of life.

"This should be the same thing whether it's a bottle of lemonade or a mask that's used in a hospital," said Thompson. "Of course, it doesn't help that we're in this time of crisis, particularly when everybody is wanting a mask."

Still, the EU Commission spokesperson for environmental matters, Vivian Loonela, recently told media outlet EurActiv it's too early to assess the impact of the coronavirus on the overall amount of plastic packaging waste generated in 2020.

What are the sustainable choices in this pandemic?

The World Health Organization (WHO) told DW that regular hand-washing offers more protection against catching COVID-19 than wearing rubber gloves while out in public areas, while the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that for the public, washable cloth masks will offer the necessary protection.

And while PPE used in medical facilities is largely non-recyclable or non-reusable, sustainable innovations are emerging.

In the U.S., the car manufacturer Ford is producing reusable gowns from air bag materials that can be washed up to 50 times, while the University of Nebraska is also testing to see whether ultraviolet light will decontaminate and prolong the life of medical masks, and therefore, reduce waste.

Simon from Zero Waste Europe believes countries shouldn't have to choose between protecting the environment and protecting public health.

"That's currently what's happening," said Simon. "In the future we need to make sure we're ready for pandemics like this and that we're ready to deal with them in an environmental way; it doesn't have to be one at the expense of the other."

Reposted with permission from Deutsche Welle.

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

A resident works in the vegetable garden of the Favela Nova Esperanca – a "green favela" which reuses everything and is subject to the ethics of permaculture – in the outskirts of Sao Paulo, Brazil, on Feb. 14, 2020. NELSON ALMEIDA / AFP via Getty Images

Farmers are the stewards of our planet's precious soil, one of the least understood and untapped defenses against climate change. Because of its massive potential to store carbon and foundational role in growing our food supply, soil makes farming a solution for both climate change and food security.

Read More Show Less
Once the virus escapes into the air inside a building, you have two options: bring in fresh air from outside or remove the virus from the air inside the building. Halfpoint Images / Getty Images

By Shelly Miller

The vast majority of SARS-CoV-2 transmission occurs indoors, most of it from the inhalation of airborne particles that contain the coronavirus. The best way to prevent the virus from spreading in a home or business would be to simply keep infected people away. But this is hard to do when an estimated 40% of cases are asymptomatic and asymptomatic people can still spread the coronavirus to others.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
California Senator Kamala Harris endorses Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden at a campaign rally at Renaissance High School in Detroit, Michigan on March 9, 2020. JEFF KOWALSKY / AFP via Getty Images

Former Vice President Joe Biden made a historic announcement Tuesday when he named California Senator Kamala Harris as his running mate in the 2020 presidential election.

Read More Show Less
An aerial view taken on August 8, 2020 shows a large patch of leaked oil from the MV Wakashio off the coast of Mauritius. STRINGER / AFP / Getty Images

The tiny island nation of Mauritius, known for its turquoise waters, vibrant corals and diverse ecosystem, is in the midst of an environmental catastrophe after a Japanese cargo ship struck a reef off the country's coast two weeks ago. That ship, which is still intact, has since leaked more than 1,000 metric tons of oil into the Indian Ocean. Now, a greater threat looms, as a growing crack in the ship's hull might cause the ship to split in two and release the rest of the ship's oil into the water, NPR reported.

On Friday, Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth declared a state of environmental emergency.

France has sent a military aircraft carrying pollution control equipment from the nearby island of Reunion to help mitigate the disaster. Additionally, Japan has sent a six-member team to assist as well, the BBC reported.

The teams are working to pump out the remaining oil from the ship, which was believed to be carrying 4,000 metric tons of fuel.

"We are expecting the worst," Mauritian Wildlife Foundation manager Jean Hugues Gardenne said on Monday, The Weather Channel reported. "The ship is showing really big, big cracks. We believe it will break into two at any time, at the maximum within two days. So much oil remains in the ship, so the disaster could become much worse. It's important to remove as much oil as possible. Helicopters are taking out the fuel little by little, ton by ton."

Sunil Dowarkasing, a former strategist for Greenpeace International and former member of parliament in Mauritius, told CNN that the ship contains three oil tanks. The one that ruptured has stopped leaking oil, giving disaster crews time to use a tanker and salvage teams to remove oil from the other two tanks before the ship splits.

By the end of Tuesday, the crew had removed over 1,000 metric tons of oil from the ship, NPR reported, leaving about 1,800 metric tons of oil and diesel, according to the company that owns the ship. So far the frantic efforts are paying off. Earlier today, a local police chief told BBC that there were still 700 metric tons aboard the ship.

The oil spill has already killed marine animals and turned the turquoise water black. It's also threatening the long-term viability of the country's coral reefs, lagoons and shoreline, NBC News reported.

"We are starting to see dead fish. We are starting to see animals like crabs covered in oil, we are starting to see seabirds covered in oil, including some which could not be rescued," said Vikash Tatayah, conservation director at Mauritius Wildlife Foundation, according to The Weather Channel.

While the Mauritian authorities have asked residents to leave the clean-up to officials, locals have organized to help.

"People have realized that they need to take things into their hands. We are here to protect our fauna and flora," environmental activist Ashok Subron said in an AFP story.

Reuters reported that sugar cane leaves, plastic bottles and human hair donated by locals are being sewn into makeshift booms.

Human hair absorbs oil, but not water, so scientists have long suggested it as a material to contain oil spills, Gizmodo reported. Mauritians are currently collecting as much human hair as possible to contribute to the booms, which consist of tubes and nets that float on the water to trap the oil.

Trending

A northern mockingbird on June 24, 2016. Renee Grayson / CC BY 2.0

Environmentalists and ornithologists found a friend in a federal court on Tuesday when a judge struck down a Trump administration attempt to allow polluters to kill birds without repercussions through rewriting the Migratory Treaty Bird Act (MBTA).

Read More Show Less