There are several opinions on this matter. Many say that due to its controversial origins and the lockdown period that followed, made us rethink our relation to nature and the environment. While in lockdown, the media were constantly sharing news about the decrease in CO2 and NO2 emissions (responsible for the greenhouse effect), due to lower industrial activity. There were also several stories about wild animals returning to their natural habitats, now that pollution had dissipated.

But, what is the real environmental impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic?

Well, not all news are good and the main problem relates to PPEs (Personal Protection Equipments). In a joint effort to protect populations and avoid widespread contamination, the WHO and other international institutions have recommended the use of masks, gloves, and alcohol-based hand sanitizers.

As a result, we are now witnessing that in most countries who are no longer in lockdown, these PPEs are littering streets and parks. As people continue to incorrectly dispose of these pieces of equipment, they end up in rivers and oceans, and even when they are properly disposed of according to WHO recommendations, they still amount to tons of waste that worsen the existing plastic waste problem. 

The WWF estimates that even if only 1% of all masks end up in the ocean, that is the equivalent of 40 tons of plastic waste. The math is simple: 1% amounts to 10 million masks per month, with each mask weighing 4 grams. And this is without considering gloves and millions of hand sanitizer bottles. 

According to OceansAsia, a Hong-Kong based environmental NGO, 300 million tons of plastic waste are produced globally every year, with over 13 million ending up the oceans. “Due to the current COVID-19 Pandemic, we currently have 7 million people wearing 1 to 2 masks per day which will substantially increase the amount of waste produced” – says Gary Stokes, CEO and founder of the NGO.

Disposable masks usually contain Polypropylene (PP) and other reusable, more expensive masks are made from Polyurethane (PUR) and polyacrylonitrile (PAN), all of which are plastic substances. Plastic has an approximate lifespan of 450 years and never fully decomposes, generating smaller components called microplastics. These, in turn, have a massive negative impact on the environment and natural habitats, often resulting in asphyxiation, entanglement, ingestion and death of local animal species. “It’s just another item in the list of marine debris; it’s neither better or worse, it’s simply another part of the legacy we are leaving for future generations” – continues Stokes.

Another French NGO, Opération Mer Propre, whose activities include collecting waste along the Côte d’Azur, sounded the alarm in late May. Divers found what Joffrey Peltier from the organization describes as “coward waste” – dozens of gloves, masks and hand sanitizer bottles under the waves of the Mediterranean sea, mixed with regular waste such as glasses and aluminum cans. Gary Stokes, from OceansAsia, mentioned the example of the Soko Islands off the coast of Hong Kong, where he found 70 disposable masks in small beach extension of just 100m, and 30 more just a week later. 

In an attempt to reduce this impact, Governments and NGOs across the globe are educating populations to opt for reusable masks, leaving disposable ones solely for healthcare professionals, and to wash their hands with water and soap more often, instead of using alcohol-based hand sanitizers. According to WHO guidelines, dirty fabrics and used masks must be thrown in closed bins, while medical equipment must be sterilized and incinerated at high temperatures. However, not all countries have the ability to properly manage the sudden increase of medical waste generated by the COVID-19 outbreak. 

The focus is now on managing the treatment of medical waste across the globe and finding effective solutions. While healthcare institutions and private waste management companies are already improving their services, it’s equally important for governments to promptly find solutions for this issue. Meanwhile, it’s up to each individual to own their responsibilities on the matter, by following the guidelines on how to dispose of their masks and other equipment.

After all, it seems like a paradox to deal with a global health crisis that results from a history of bad choices and attitudes towards the planet, by following the same irresponsible, inconsequent behavior. We must, once and for all, learn about the consequences of our choices and take extreme responsibility for them. Only by doing so, can we hope to revert the ill legacy we are leaving for the future of our history. 

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