After the official announcement of the Covid-19 outbreak as a Global Pandemic, people all over the world started using hygiene products to have protection from coronavirus. These products helped people to protect themselves, yet also brought catastrophe to the aquatic ecosystem. After using these masks, plastic gloves, gowns; people throw these products without proper processing which get dumped into the ocean.
Covid-19 pandemic has aggravated the use of single-use plastic where many countries are trying to minimize the use. Polypropylene (PP) and polyethylene terephthalate (PET) are the main components of the highly endorsed N95 masks. Likewise, surgical gloves, gowns, surgical masks are made of nonwoven polypropylene. Again, some intricate masks contain polyurethane (PUR) and/or polyacrylonitrile (PAN).
At first sight, the Covid-19 pandemic appears to have a collateral contribution towards the UN 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (namely 11, 12, 13, 15 SDGs). It is a fact that the worldwide lockdown during this pandemic situation has turned into a blessing for the environment as the minimum amount of transportation has dwindled the level of carbon dioxide emissions, outdoor air pollution and environmental noise level across the world.
According to UNCTAD, Coronavirus lockdowns all over the world have influenced a 5% drop in greenhouse gas emissions. Nevertheless, with the stockpiling of plastic hygiene products, an unconquerable challenge has emerged in controlling plastic pollution. According to WHO, 89 million medical masks, 76 million examination gloves and 1.6 million goggles and face visors are required globally every month as long as the pandemic keeps going.
On February 24, 2020, Wuhan City generated 200 tonnes of clinical wastes. During an eight-week lockdown in Singapore, 5.7 million residents generated 1,470 tonnes of clinical wastes and in Mumbai city of India, 12,065kg Covid-19 wastes were produced on an average every day. A research report has prognosticated a spike in the disposable mask market from an approximation of USD 800 million in 2019 to USD 166 billion in 2020.
As reported by the Environment and Social Development Organization (ESDO), around 14,500 tonnes of clinical wastes had originated alone in Bangladesh in March 2020 where Dhaka alone generated 3076 tonnes of wastes-1,916 from gloves (1,314 from surgical gloves and 602 from polythene gloves), 447 from surgical masks, 443 from the polythene shopping bags and 270 from used hand sanitizer containers.
As of April 24, around 12,50,000 PPE sets were dispensed to hospitals. These sets nearly produced 18,70,000 kilograms of contagious medical wastes.
In the present scenario, the world produces 381 million tonnes of plastics and we are polluting the ocean with around 12.7 million tonnes of plastic every single year. Statistics indicate that the production levels may reach around 600 million tonnes by 2025 and to exceed one billion tonnes by 2050. 88% of the sea surface water gets polluted with these wastes and between 8 and 48 million tonnes of waste enter the deep ocean every year.
These plastics don't dissipate; instead, it crumbles into nanoplastics and microplastics, wreaking havoc throughout the ecosystem. Plastics remain in the ocean for approximately 450 years. The magnitude of plastic pollution has caused the ruination of the marine ecosystem. The plastic pollution rate is tremendous that one in three fish caught for consumption contains plastic.
As specified by the United Nations, around 800 species worldwide are affected by marine debris. Plastics have a similar appearance to jellyfish thus marine organisms end up mistaken these plastics as food. 100% of baby sea turtles have plastic in their stomachs. Around one million seabirds and 100,000 marine animals die from plastic pollution every year. Scientists assessed that around 60% of marine birds contain plastics in their stomachs and the number will boost to 99% by 2050.
Countries all over the world have been facing hard times to cope up with plastic pollution and now this pandemic has compelled to shelve plans of many countries regarding plastic use. "Plastic pollution was already one of the greatest threats to our planet before the coronavirus outbreak, the sudden boom in the daily use of certain products to keep people safe and stop the disease is making things much worse," said Pamela Coke-Hamilton, UNCTAD's director of international trade.
Managing this level of plastic waste is quite difficult for Bangladesh. Department of Environment (DoE) Director Ziaul Haque said: "It has become a challenge to properly dispose of the medical waste during this coronavirus pandemic. Previously, there was already a struggle with waste management, now it has become worse." This extremity seeks urgent governmental actions. Hospitals, clinics must follow the prescribed guidelines determined by the WHO while disposing of clinical wastes.
Clinical wastes should be sorted out as close as sources and placed in leak-proof, identifiable, color-coded, labeled and puncture resistant (particularly for sharps) double-layered bags. General household wastes should not get contaminated with these infectious wastes. Ad-hoc services should step forward to help the government. Covid-19 wastes should be treated with thermal treatment such as incineration, autoclave, microwave treatment, etc.
The government should engage local authorities in monitoring and law enforcement to ensure that every facility implements the guidelines aptly. Most of the gaps arise in the sector of implementation.
Lastly, it's not entirely the government's or international authorities' responsibility to protect the environment; all should come forward to combat this emerging plastic exposure during this pandemic. Hence, to put up a fight against plastic pollution, the main motto should be "Reduce-Reuse-Recycle."
"Plastic is the most destructive weapon than a nuclear bomb or an atom bomb, its impact shall remain for centuries on the future generation" - Sir P.S. Jagadeesh Kumar
The writer is a contributor