Oceans are already suffering the ravages of COVID-19

A new type of waste begins to reach the world’s most remote beaches and seas: disposable masks and gloves. Experts warn of the importance of managing this waste properly and, for the future, work on finding new materials that are safe and less aggressive to the environment.

mascarilla en la playa

At the end of February, the organisation Oceansasia published images showing traces of disposable masks found on the beaches of Soko, an archipelago located near Hong Kong. The photographs and video have been viewed over 17 thousand times and show another of the indirect effects of the COVID-19 pandemic: contamination by single-use plastics.

Due to the high transmission capacity of the SARS-Cov-2 virus, the use of protective material has grown exponentially, both on a health and individual level, and will continue to do so in the coming months and as de-escalation measures begin and people resume their normal lives. Most of the materials used to make disposable gloves and masks are not recyclable, and this is creating a new collapse: that of the capacity to manage this type of waste. As a result, many of them will end up polluting rivers and oceans.

The Oceansasia team regularly visits the beaches of Soko to analyse the plastics and micro-plastics that reach this remote location and trace their origin. Until now, the presence of surgical masks was anecdotal, but since the outbreak of the pandemic this type of residue is becoming more and more common. "When you have a population of seven million people who suddenly start using one or two masks a day, the amount of garbage generated is considerable," the organization’s leaders reflect. One of its objectives is to trace the origin of the waste they find, based on calculations that include the weight and shape of the objects as well as the currents and displacements, in order to locate the sources of the objects.

Protecting our health and our ecosystems

It is not important to just protect the health of the oceans: our own health must also be protected. Various works have shown the SARS-Cov-2 virus’s ability to remain active on different surfaces for up to several days, so its transmission can also be increased if gloves and masks are not deposited in the appropriate disposal container.

Plastic pollution is a serious environmental problem, a crisis that we cannot ignore even in these times when, logically, concern for COVID-19 is at the forefront. "It is true that for reasons of hygiene and health it is not feasible to ban the use of single-use plastics for the duration of the health emergency. But it is very important to avoid a major environmental problem once the crisis has been resolved. It should not be forgotten that the problem of contamination by plastics will still be present,” explains Ethel Eljarrat, researcher at the Department of Environmental Chemistry at the Institute of Environmental Diagnosis and Water Studies (IDAEA), in an article on this topic published in The Conversation.  "There is an urgent need to develop alternative materials to more biodegradable and more recyclable plastics, as well as to advance the design of new chemical additives that are less polluting. If these solutions were available today, the current increase in the use of plastic material would not have such a negative impact on the environment.”

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