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COVID Plastic Waste: A Big Problem for Oceans

Masks and other pandemic equipment is ending up in rivers and seas.

By:  |  April 29, 2022  |    649 Words
GettyImages-1235747294 ocean pollution

(Photo by Nick Ut/Getty Images)

The COVID-19 pandemic may have caused problems for human health globally – but research shows it has led to issues for the world’s oceans and rivers, too.

Face masks have been a common sight during the pandemic, as people tried to avoid catching and spreading the virus. While some made their own reusable face coverings, millions of disposable, plastic masks were worn around the world. As well as masks, personal protective equipment (PPE) like plastic gloves and suits were commonly worn. Disposable testing kits were also used and thrown away. Hygiene is extremely important in the medical field, so it’s no wonder that single-use or disposable plastic items are often used – but how can this be managed to reduce pollution?

Studying COVID Plastic

Scientists found that COVID waste has worsened the problem of plastic pollution in oceans and waterways. According to one study, about 25,000 tons of plastic waste were created by 193 countries during the pandemic.

GettyImages-1140387268 plastic pollution

(Photo by: Citizen of the Planet/UIG via Getty Images)

“The Covid-19 pandemic has led to an increased demand for single-use plastics that intensifies pressure on an already out-of-control global plastic waste problem,” said Yiming Peng and Peipei Wu from Nanjing University. The researchers found that about half of the plastics came from Asia – particularly China. A quarter came from Europe, and about a quarter from North and South America.

The scientists suggested that most of the masks, gloves, testing kits and face visors were discarded by hospitals. The waste floated down hundreds of major rivers around the world before washing into the ocean. However, only ten rivers, most of them in Asia, are the source of around 90% of river-based ocean plastic pollution.

Effects of Plastic on Oceans

Plastic pollution was a problem before the pandemic, but now it is even worse. Plastics in the ocean can cause several problems, hurting wildlife and impacting the food supply of both humans and animals.

One issue is that animals can mistake plastic items for food. Other animals may get caught in plastic items, causing injuries. Author Dave Ford explained in Scientific American:

“The practical problems with gloves and masks finding their way into our rivers and oceans is that they can easily be mistaken for jellyfish, a favorite food of sea turtles. Because of their elastic components, masks also have increased risks of entanglement for a wide variety of fish, animals and birds.”

Another problem is plastic slowly breaking down into microplastics – tiny pieces of plastic that are less than 0.2 inches (or 5mm) in length. When it comes to COVID, plastic masks “will take as long as 450 years to break down, slowly turning into micro plastics while negatively impacting marine wildlife and ecosystems,” according to environmental group OceansAsia.

As animals and plants are exposed to these microplastics, the plastic can be passed along the food chain, eventually to a human who eats fish or other seafood. Nobody really knows what health effects microplastic could have on the body.

What Can Be Done?

Scientists are working on new materials and technologies all the time to find materials that can reduce or replace plastic. However, this is a slow process as a lot of research and testing has to be done.

Individuals can also work on reducing the amount of plastic they use – but this is challenging in the medical field since keeping things germ-free is the top concern.

One thing the study showed is that some countries are better at managing their waste than others. Asian nations especially seemed unable to prevent their plastic from getting into rivers. These developing nations didn’t have the tools to manage their plastic, so it was flushed into the waterways. If more effort is put into helping developing countries reduce pollution, the effect will benefit the entire planet.

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