Masks, gloves and disinfectant products to stop the spread of COVID-19 end in nature.
After more than a month of confinement, the normally bustling streets of Kalamata, a Greek city southwest of Athens, traditionally known for its olives, are largely empty.
As in the rest of Greece, the inhabitants of the coastal city can only go out under strict circumstances, such as exercising for a short time and buying groceries. But discarded gloves, wipes, and jars of disinfectant, which people use to protect themselves and others, are found scattered on parks, sidewalks, and highways.
The problem is not limited to the small Greek city. Similar wastes are causing problems in larger metropolises such as New York and London. They have even reached the uninhabited Soko Islands, a few kilometers from Hong Kong, China. Gary Stokes of the conservation group OceansAsia found about 100 masks during three visits to the beach.
“Until now, we have not found so many masks in such a remote place,” says Stokes, who suspects that they come from nearby China or Hong Kong. “When we found them, it had only been between six and eight weeks since their use, ”he says.
IMPACT ON WILDLIFE
Disposable gloves, masks and other personal protective equipment (PPE) are essential for those fighting the pandemic, but they are also widely used by the public. Because they are not always properly disposed of, environmentalists fear negative consequences for wildlife and the fight against plastic pollution.
“If they are thrown out onto the street, when it rains, gloves and masks end up in the sea,” explains Anastasia Miliou, a marine biologist and director of research at the Archipelago Institute for Marine Conservation, based in Greece.
Waste management problems are systemic in Greece, which is why even disposable gloves and facemasks can end up in the environment. Also in Hong Kong, where garbage is rare, there are other ways that masks can reach the sea, according to Stokes.
“People are walking, they take out their wallet and a mask accidentally falls out of their pocket,” he explains, adding that even if they are thrown in the trash, they are light enough to fly. And once they enter the water, they pose a threat. for marine life.
In the waters of Hong Kong, we have pink dolphins and green turtles that pass through this place, ”Stokes warns. “A recently published study showed that plastic ends up filling up with algae and bacteria when it has been in the water long enough and smells like food for turtles.”
PROPER MASK RECYCLING IS A PROBLEM
On the other hand, PPE that does not end up in the environment or at sea is not necessarily easy to deal with either, according to Joan Marc Simon, executive director of Zero Waste Europe, an NGO based in Brussels.
He points to the European recycling plan, whereby retailers and producers pay for the collection and treatment of plastic packaging. Since gloves are not considered packaging, they cannot be put in household recycling bins, Simon explains.
Even natural latex gloves aren’t always an eco-friendly option, according to Simon. It depends on the chemical additives used in its production, some of which can harm the environment when broken down.
While a setback to sustainability practices in a crisis is understandable, says Richard Thompson, professor and director of the Marine Institute at Plymouth University, tackling the plastic waste crisis means keeping track of the entire cycle of a product, from its design to the end of its useful life.
“This should be the same whether it is a bottle of lemonade or a mask used in a hospital,” says Thompson. “Of course, it doesn’t help that we are in this time of crisis, particularly when everyone wants a mask ”.
Still, European Commission spokeswoman for environmental affairs Vivian Loonela recently told EurActiv that it is too early to assess the impact of the coronavirus on the total amount of plastic waste generated in 2020.
WHAT ARE THE SUSTAINABLE OPTIONS IN THIS PANDEMIC?
The World Health Organization (WHO) told DW that regular hand washing offers more protection to curb the spread of COVID-19 than the use of rubber gloves when in public areas, while the Control Centers and US Disease Prevention USA They claim that washable fabric masks offer the necessary protection for the public.