Re-emergence of plastic pollution

Dr. Asha Singh
Since the COVID-19 shutdown, we have heard that the air and water environment all around our planet has gotten cleaner. Yes, it’s true! Nature is rebounding all around the world during this lockdown period. Since this lockdown, we have seen the appearance of dancing dolphins and other marine creatures in the crystal clear sea water in addition to strolling of wild animals in the deserted streets and highways. There has been a temporary crash in carbon emissions owing to drop in industrial activity, travel and daily commute during the lockdown.
However, on the other hand, this corona virus crisis has initiated a universal chase of stocking personal protective equipments (PPE) viz. masks, gloves, visors and gowns to protect the frontline workers. During this pandemic, significant attention has been paid to policy and management of Covid-19 in the health sector. However, scant attention has been paid to the solid waste management sector, and this global health crisis is leading to re-entry of an environmental threat in the form of PPE, making another epidemic, plastic pollution even more worse.
Owing to concern about safety and cross-contamination during COVID-19 pandemic, a number of restrictions on single-use plastics have been paused or rolled back as authorities scramble to fight the health crisis. This has translated into a heightened demand for bottled water, PPE, plastic bags and packaging. And since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, many grocery stores have prohibited shoppers from bringing their own reusable bags and are handing out single-use plastic bags instead. Moreover, the quarantine economy has driven more people online, resulting in greater packaging waste from deliveries.
While such decisions are important from a public health perspective, one immediate impact is clear on streets around the world. We also need to remember that a lot of the personal protective equipments, and other medical equipments are made of plastic, and much of it is being thrown carelessly away and ends up somewhere. Environmental activists fear that it is just the tip of an alarming iceberg, with the pandemic causing a number of serious challenges to their efforts to reduce plastic pollution. When PPE gets discarded in public areas, it ends up clogging roadside drains, sewers and washing into waterways. The problem of PPE waste begins on land in towns and cities and ends up in the water bodies.
PPE has become an additional threat to the world’s oceans, which have been already choking under the weight of plastic at a rapid rate. PPE presents very unique problems to marine life as the structure of PPE make it particularly hazardous, for e.g., gloves, like plastic bags, can appear to be jellyfish or other types of foods for sea turtles. Furthermore, the straps on masks can present entangling hazards. Waterlogged masks, gloves, empty hand sanitizer bottles and other solid wastes generated during the pandemic are being settling in our seabeds, joining the day-to-day detritus in our ocean ecosystems.
Over time, these plastic products break down and add to the vast collections of microplastics in our oceans and gain entry in our food chain. And the irony is that, while we produce and discard plastic to fight one public health crisis, we may be slowly contributing to another. According to a WWF report, “if just 1% of the masks were disposed of incorrectly and dispersed in nature, this would result in as many as 10 million masks per month polluting the environment.” Considering that the weight of each mask is about 4 grams, this would result in the dispersion of more than 40 thousand kilograms of plastic in nature”. The implication of these trends could be hazardous for our already polluted oceans.
With access to only 198 Common Bio-Medical Waste Treatment Facilities (CBMWTFs) and 225 captive incinerators, will India’s healthcare facilities be able to handle the rise in solid waste quantities due to the covid-19 outbreak? The Central Pollution Control Board has given detailed guidelines about the handling of COVID-19 waste from hospitals, care centres, quarantined buildings, containment zones, and pathology laboratories and issued an advisory to CBMWTFs to operate for extra hours and also asked for PPE kits, for collection staff and vehicles. Yet, there is a need for immediate capacity building and guidance to manage municipal solid waste, especially household hazardous waste.
An estimated ragpickers’ workforce of 1.5 to 4.0 million in our country performs waste collection, sorting and recycling. If not informed or if their safety issues are not addressed properly, their health can be put at risk. Infact, in Maharashtra, a man was caught while drying, over 100,000 used face masks so that he could resell them in the market. Such activities can lead to disastrous health effects. Thus, there is an urgent need for citizens to be sensitised about segregation and protected disposal of household waste. As the COVID affected world is trying to emerge from the pandemic, we should consider this moment as a wake-up call and should find ways to rebuild and renew our environment.
(The author is Assistant Professor in Environmental Sciences Govt. Degree College Bishnah)