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Coronavirus Plastic Waste Polluting the Environment
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.
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For centuries, the delicate silver dove has been a symbol of love and fidelity.
Biodiversity and Habitat Loss<p>Their near extinction is a symbol of the <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/global-biodiversity-outlook-targets-extinction-summit-new-york-pledge/a-54932895" target="_blank">biodiversity crisis</a> in the UK, largely driven by habitat destruction. Britain is now one of the countries with the most <a href="https://www.wwf.org.uk/future-of-UK-nature#:~:text=The%20UK%20is%20one%20of,than%20half%20are%20in%20decline" target="_blank">depleted nature</a> in the world according to the World Wildlife Fund. Half its plant and animal species are in decline and more than <a href="https://www.rspb.org.uk/about-the-rspb/about-us/media-centre/press-releases/let-nature-sing-wales/#:~:text=a%20natural%20tragedy.-,Over%2040%20million%20birds%20have%20vanished%20from%20UK%20skies%20in,unaware%20of%20the%20impending%20danger" target="_blank">40 million birds</a> have vanished in just half a century.</p><p>"[Turtle doves] are the canary in the [coal] mine because there are all these other species before it and after it," said Tree. "It's an umbrella for all the other species that are heading that way."</p><p>Turtle doves migrate south through Europe to sub-Saharan Africa between July and September, ending up in dry woodland and farmland areas of countries like Mali and Senegal for winter. </p><p>Droughts in West Africa and the Sahel region are believed to have contributed to the fall in turtle dove species recorded in northern Europe, with low rainfall reducing supplies of the seeds and insects the birds rely on for energy for the long journey home.</p>
Conservation and Farming<p><a href="https://www.operationturtledove.org/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Operation Turtle Dove,</a> a partnership project of charities including the Essex Wildlife trust, works with landowners and farmers to actively build turtle dove habitat.</p><p>Outten works with <a href="https://www.ebws.org.uk/birdsites/blue-house-farm-ewt-north-fambridge" target="_blank">Blue House Farm</a>, a 660-acre nature reserve in the UK county of Essex, where they have replicated weedy fallow plots. </p><p>"We work on it every year to make sure it's in the condition it needs to be with plants such as clovers and black medic," Outten said. "These plants are native to the landscape and produce the seed the birds feed on." </p><p>The birds eat a wide range of seeds from various plants that would have been abundant 50 or 100 years ago, added Guy Anderson, program manager for species recovery with The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB). </p><p>"But it's simply true that with the gradual process of <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/farming-without-pesticides-how-can-we-make-agriculture-greener/a-52216796" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">intensifying our agricultural production</a>, the availability of those seeds has dropped and dropped," said Anderson.</p><p>Part of the project includes supplementary feeding — providing sources of food in the form of seed or grain. Under the Countryside Stewardship Scheme in England, farmers can receive financial support to create a turtle dove habitat. </p><p>Though they haven't recorded an increase in doves across the sites in the four years of working on the project, Outten said they are seeing improvements in how landowners and farmers manage habitat for the birds. </p>
A Turtle Dove Haven<p>The 3,500-acre Knepp Estate in West Sussex is another project taking a different approach and one of the few places where turtle dove numbers are increasing.</p><p>Isabella Tree and her husband Charlie Burrell converted their intensively farmed land into a rewilding project almost 20 years ago. They have let the land return to nature.</p><p>Just one year after they'd finished <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/uks-most-talented-architects-are-not-human/a-35952128" target="_blank">rewilding</a> the southern part of their property, they heard turtle doves for the first time. It's now a breeding hotspot for the birds with an estimated 19 pairs. Knepp is also home to <a href="https://www.rewildingbritain.org.uk/rewilding/rewilding-projects/knepp-estate" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">2% of the UK's population</a> of nightingales. </p><p>Tree is critical of supplementary feeding schemes that, in her view, are short term. She questions the chances of turtle doves getting to feed on scattered seeds before other mammals eat them first.</p>
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