The ongoing pandemic crisis of COVID-19 has made a huge impact on our lifestyles and economy in general. This will also have an irreversible impact on our ecosystem if we are not vigilant enough to take corrective measures now. This pandemic has resulted in increased usage of personal protective equipment (PPE) such as masks, gloves, face shields, and more. To support this increasing demand, production for these kits is increasing rapidly so that the health of the general populace is not hampered. The most used product for coronavirus protection is face masks, typically sold as a single-use surgical mask variety. Such surgical masks cannot be used for more than a single day, and to keep up with safety demands, people are using multiple masks in a single day. The material from which most PPE equipment is created is non-biodegradable plastics, which are not reduced down to a simpler molecular form by nature.
No denying the fact that these protective gears are highly essential during this time, a considerable problem occurs when people begin to litter streets, beaches, and natural wildlife with these masks. Scientists have discovered that such actions will cause an unprecedented amount of havoc on the natural environment and push back conservation work by several years. Statistically, 8 million metric tons of plastic enter the ocean, but increased littering of masks on the beachside has increased the scale of this problem significantly. Apart from the actual masks, the packaging in which they come is also made out of plastic, which plays an active part in the raging ecological problem that CoronaVirus has imposed.
Studies have come up with scary statistics that claim that if everyone in the UK wore an entirely new mask every day, the amount of waste generated would be equivalent to 66 thousand metric tons. Although used masks do not pose much threat of acting as carriers of the virus as it cannot survive on this surface for an extended period, yet it means an unfathomable problem for sea and land creatures. We have already been extracting large amounts of trash from the ecosystem and now the addition of littered masks and PPE kits we have many new circumstances of Ecological imbalance in the Ecosystem. Animals cannot distinguish between food and masks, while many have been found wrapped in mask strings. The search and demand have lowered the costs of these masks up to such an extent that people can buy them in packs and throw the used ones after a few hours of continuous usage.
This reckless behavior of littering masks everywhere means creating further ecological problems for the next generation to tackle. Furthermore, even the ocean clean-up initiatives have been paused presently due to the ongoing effects of the pandemic, which has further hampered the current situation of environmental pollution. With people not going out and working remotely has reduced carbon emissions across the globe, yet this issue of the ocean and land littering has caused another huge problem that needs to be tackled as soon as possible. The proper way of discarding these masks is through proper incineration in machines with adequate gas filtration systems installed in them. There is no sufficient presence of such devices worldwide; therefore, countries are committing further problems by dumping them in landfills or directly into the oceans without any prior treatment.
To curve this rampant problem, agencies from all over the world have started gathering together to collect these masks and dispose of them properly in designated spots. An example of such an effort is an organization named “Save Our Shores”, which operates from California. The members of the organization volunteer to pick up stray masks and other objects from beaches while taking every possible precaution that they can. More organizations such as “Citizens Campaign For The Environment” have started awareness campaigns that influence businesses to place trash cans outside the store and parking lots. Some counties have started to tax and fine people as an example of compulsory measures against such practices of mass misuse. Research shows that a significant decrease in plastic usage can be achieved simply through proper regulation and incentivization upon plastic replacement in general use. Furthermore, innovative product designing and packaging is a possible measure in low-income countries. Governments of the nations must also play a cooperative part in this struggle against plastic usage globally. Countries can add regulations in their trade policies that either regulate plastic consumption through import and export or incentivize alternate materials.
An effective approach towards this situation could be that individuals begin using biodegradable masks made out of planet-friendly materials while also ensuring that we create jobs for select small scale industries that will manufacture them. Most of the masks are entirely made of polypropylene, which has a very high decomposition time. Using biodegradable materials that still follow guidelines recommended by international health associations can be created and distributed among people at subsidized rates to accelerate their usage. Utilization of one time masks should be reduced while promoting masks that can be disinfected and reused.
The current pandemic situation that the world is going through demands utmost safety and protection for every individual to prevent transmission. A general step in this direction is to use face masks and gloves to prevent the transmission of viruses. But this doesn’t mean that we should discard these masks, wherever we think we can. Proper consideration needs to be taken before discarding such items, ensuring that they don’t end up in water bodies and disturbing the ecological balance of our ecosystem. We also need to think about alternate biodegradable materials that can be leveraged to manufacture masks and gloves. This not only helps us in combating the current pandemic crisis but will also help us in safeguarding our environment as well. The impact of COVID-19 is really unpleasant on all fronts but its impact on climate change can be more adverse resulting in huge Ecological disruption.