Plastic pollution is widely known as the accumulation of those waste products whose major component is plastic. The range of this plastic can be categorized as microplastic if its size is less than 5mm, or it can be categorized as macro plastics. This problem has been on the main headlines of major newspapers for several decades. Moreover, there has been extensive literature that has been cited on the issues of pollution caused by plastic.
Still, there exists a major gap between scientific research and the knowledge scale of the general audience. We should do everything in our power to ensure a smooth transfer of knowledge from our labs to the rooms of common people. There can never be a proper application of scientific discoveries if we fail to deliver them properly to our public. This is the same case in the current matter.
COVID-19 is something that has been faced by us all at one level or another. With over 185 Million cases reported worldwide and about 4M deaths in 188 countries, the COVID-19 outbreak has been declared as a fast-spreading pandemic by the United Nations’ World Health Organization. We might differ from one another based on intensity, but the after-effects of this global pandemic have left the whole world in jitters.
A disease that originated in Wuhan left its home place in no time and enveloped the whole world. This caused some major setbacks to various sectors, such as global economic conditions hit rock bottom. The industries and processing units were also heavily affected. The streets became empty, and the only crowded place was hospitals. Hence, the world was put on pause.
Apart from being severely affected by this pandemic, the world also benefitted from COVID-19. The absence of motor vehicles on the road caused a significant decrease in the concentration of carbon dioxide by 4%. This absence lifted the layer of haze, and after a long time, the city’s sky became visible and pollution-free. But, this led to the resurgence of a new issue. That issue is the plastic pollution amidst COVID-19.
The waste that has been generated during this pandemic can easily be regarded as "COVID waste". This includes latex gloves, nitrile gloves, face masks, and used and discarded bottles of hand sanitizers.
This was discovered by Joffrey Peltier, and he carefully stated that we could easily identify a new type of pollution in such a scenario. This type of solution is more damaging than the already existing one because the general understanding is non-existent at the current moment.
They are the first thing that comes to mind when people talk about COVID-19 and its protocols. These are of the utmost importance as they provide first-hand protection against this virus. They are designed for one-time use, so people often discard them after they have used them for an outing. Okay, this is undebatable. But imagine a scenario where billions of people are repeating this same activity again and again. If this is the case, we won’t have water in our oceans anymore, rather, there will just be floating plastic or settled plastic on the surface or in its depths.
COVID-19 is a life-threatening disease. It has threatened people so much around the globe that they’ve hastened the use of every possible precautionary measure to safeguard their lives. The most widespread of these cares is the extensive use of surgical or face masks and gloves. If we pay enough attention to both these remedies, we will see a strong connection between them, and that is what we have been discussing previously, and that is plastic.
Made with non-woven plastic-based fabrics like polyethene, polystyrene, or polyester, they’re bound to linger in the environment longer than anything, either in landfills or oceans. These single-use products have been posing an environmental problem that has far-reaching consequences than the virus itself.
Pair with the hand sanitizers that we use so frequently come in the packaging of PET plastics. These plastics are known to be either recycled or reused. But we as humans fail to identify our responsibilities.
COVID waste has already started polluting the environment in many countries like Hong Kong, where heaps of discarded single-use masks bordered upon a 100-metre stretch of beach, with new masses coming in with each wave. This substantial amount of trash is expected, provided the fact that you suddenly have a population of 7.6 billion people wearing one to two masks per day.
We have to make sure that we dispose of these materials properly and systematically so that it does not become a problem in the long run. But it has been seen that with this growing pandemic there has been an elevation in the dependency on these plastic products such as people store processed and packaged food.
Moreover, there has been an increase in the usage of protective gears and we are sorry to say that despite global reservations on the usage of plastic all these materials have plastic as their main components. On one hand, it is inevitable for us to avoid plastic pollution altogether, but in the other scenario, there has been a surge in the overall usage of plastic so that we can avoid this pandemic. All in all, COVID-19 waste is leading to a massive trail of clinical waste in the environment.
Why should you take plastic pollution seriously?
The scientific community has been working on plastic for various decades, and it is because of their extensive research skills that we have come to know that our dependency on plastic is dangerous for our environment. Plastic has a lifespan of 450 years. Take a deep breath and read that again!!!
It means that it takes nature 450 years to degrade plastic partially so that it can leave the ecosystem. But it would rather get shrunk into smaller pieces which are known as microplastics. These microplastics are being studied at the current moment, but it is of no debate that these microplastics pose an even bigger threat to the environment and marine sediments.
Once these enter an animal’s natural habitat, they may mistake this trash for food (not to forget discarded masks look like jellyfish to them), which could lead to ingestion, entanglement, choking, and ultimately death of the species. That is why we need to take these matters seriously because humans are continuously adding plastics to nature, and we are not stopping anytime soon.
Various portions of the human population are also at risk of adverse impacts from exposure to medical waste. These include front-line workers, cleaners, garbage collectors and employees who spend a great deal of time in public spaces.
The problem identification is the initial step towards finding the right solution for the problem. Then comes the expansion of the knowledge spectrum of the targeted audiences. This will lead to the basic foundation on which you can then build a fortress. This is considered to be a sound practice and is the beginner’s guide towards a sustainable future.
On the waste disposal end, used face masks and soiled tissues must be discarded in lidded trash boxes, while medical gear used by infected patients must be carefully sterilised or incinerated (at 850-1100 degrees Celsius) as per WHO’s health guidelines.
Since most regions lack state-of-the-art incineration facilities, it is beyond the capacity of available ones to deal with enormous tones of clinical waste generated as an outcome of the COVID-19 outbreak. The best we can do is to reuse the face masks or opt for reusable cloth masks. Many people will roll their eyes at this suggestion, but it is a highly cost-effective remedy. Another treatment is that you should substitute the use of gloves with frequent hand washing. These small acts will have a larger-than-life impact on the overall situation.
We can also remove the gaps between scientific knowledge and people's understanding. This will help people in the long run. This can be achieved if we inform them properly about the wondrous thing that is recycling.
Thus the need of the hour is that there should be a sound balance between our activities and nature’s capacities. We should not burden our resources more than they can handle. While combating the disastrous impacts of COVID-19, the exploitation of natural resources is intolerable and unjustified.
Nida Riaz is a freelance blogger based in Pakistan. She started writing about her passion for the environment when the world came to a stop in early 2020.