Up next, pandemic of garbage

NOT to crow about days of doom and gloom, which are upon us anyway and therefore need no further repeating, but hopefully to keep us awake when another calamity strikes.

We know that tons upon tons of used virus-protective supplies (face masks, face shields, etc.) are being dumped every day. Many of these find their way to nearby waterways and eventually end up in the oceans and open seas.

Even as early as two months ago, there were already reports of a looming environmental crisis brought about by a “pandemic of garbage.” For example, TheGuardian.com reported on June 8, 2020 that there are “More masks than jellyfish: coronavirus waste ends up in ocean.”

The report highlighted what it observed as “a glut of discarded single-use masks and gloves [that] is washing up on shorelines and littering the seabed.” It added: “Conservationists have warned that the coronavirus pandemic could spark a surge in ocean pollution — adding to a glut of plastic waste that already threatens marine life — after finding disposable masks floating like jellyfish and waterlogged latex gloves scattered across seabeds.”

Just how much trash are we dumping every day? Intuitive calculations indicate that billions of these protective items are being thrown away as waste, on the assumption that more than 7 billion of the world’s population who are affected by the coronavirus disease 2019 (Covid-19) pandemic are using them.

While global figures are not yet readily available, snippets of them can be drawn from country data. It is estimated that in Wuhan, China — where Covid-19 originated — for example, hospitals “produced 240 tons of waste daily at the height of the outbreak, compared with 40 tons during normal times.” Daily production of face masks “soared to 116 million in February, 12 times higher than the previous month.”

The Asian Development Bank in a recent report titled “Managing infectious medical waste during the Covid-19 pandemic,” found that “cities such as Manila, Kuala Lumpur, Hanoi and Bangkok experienced similar increases, producing 154 to 280 tons more medical waste per day than before the pandemic.”

In Thailand (where a tabloid recently flashed a headline that referred to the Philippines as “land of Covid”), its Environment Institute reported that “plastic waste has increased from 1,500 tons to 6,300 tons per day, owing to soaring home deliveries of food.” In the United States, consulting firm Frost & Sullivan predicts that the US could generate an entire year’s worth of medical waste in just two months because of Covid-19.

Managing Covid-19 wastes should compel us to prepare for any eventuality on account of at least four grizzly phenomena: 1) the threat of plastic pollution (already a global environmental issue even before the pandemic); 2) oceans treat garbage that are being dumped into them in ways that do not recognize national boundaries (which is why countries need to address the problem as a single protagonist and not as a diverse mix of individual entities); 3) the recycling industry is half-paralyzed (with arguably heavy toll on the long-term outlook of the global economy); and 4) compromised oceans due to pollution undermines their capacity to “fix” carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, which directly impacts on the promotion of health and overall well-being of living things, including humans.

Face masks (not to mention face shields) and personal protective equipment (PPE) often contain plastics such as polypropylene. Expert opinion places the lifespan of masks at 450 years, enough to mark these as ecological time bombs.

And ocean debris does not stay in one place. This should still make the relatively Covid-free Thais uncomfortable if their neighboring countries are not as disciplined and hygienic as they are. Gary Stokes of OceanAsia, for example, found in a survey that there were about 70 face masks on a 100-meter stretch of a beach in Soko Islands (near Hong Kong), which is inhabited. He adds: “We’re finding them [face masks] everywhere. Ever since society started wearing masks, the cause and effects are being seen on the beaches… another item we’re leaving as a legacy to the next generation.”

The pandemic-worsened sea pollution is also seen as adversely impacting the recycling industry and the capacity of oceans to fix carbon dioxide levels.

TheConversation.com reports on April 30, 2020 that while “the amount of waste generated in commercial and industrial workplaces has drastically reduced… home clear-outs and renovations during the lockdown are creating domestic waste that can’t be disposed of at recycling centers… Industries that rely heavily on recycled materials are therefore the ones feeling the most pressure in terms of getting hold of resources. The United States plastic recycling industry has asked Congress for a $1-billion bailout ‘to meet the demands of this crisis.’ There are warnings of cardboard shortages for future packaging as we produce and recycle less at work, and sharp increases in online shopping brings more card and paper into our homes.”

Finally, we also need to be wary about how pollution can hasten ocean acidification. According to a 2019 report (published by ucsusa.org), the exchange of carbon dioxide (CO2) between the surface of the ocean and the atmosphere has remained constant for millions of years. But in the past 150 years, humans have greatly increased the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels and changing land-use practices (e.g. increased soil erosion brought about by mining and logging). As a result, the ocean has absorbed about 29 percent of this additional carbon. This debases the capacity of our oceans to support marine life and, as a consequence, threatens the rest of the environment, the economy and human life itself.

If something good can come out of this looming disaster, that would be the epiphany-like realization that a global crisis can be best addressed by nations acting as one, not as separate, and sometimes competing, groups of peoples.


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