Amid understandable concern over health and hygiene during the COVID-19 pandemic, the surge in marine pollution rises due to the global increase in the use of single-use masks, latex gloves, personal protective equipment (PPE), alcohol and hand sanitizer bottles, and disposable wipes and cleaning agents, as well as single-use plastic bags, containers, and utensils from take-out deliveries and plastic wraps and boxes packaged from online shopping deliveries.
In the years leading up to the pandemic, experts had warned of the threat posed to oceans and marine life by the looming plastic pollution. With this, some cities and provinces were making progress on banning plastic bags, shifting from single-use plastic to paper products, and encouraging shoppers to bring reusable bags.
But now, health concerns over COVID-19 have reversed that progress. Plastic usage grew substantially as countries around the world confronted the COVID-19 pandemic, considering the vast amounts of PPE products being consumed to keep people safe from the disease.
Most of the Filipinos have, for months, been wearing about one to two single-use face masks everyday, in the hope of warding off the COVID-19, which has infected more than 194,000 Filipinos.
These disposable masks may feel like soft cotton, but they’re almost all made from non-biodegradable material such as polypropylene which take hundreds of years to break down. Improper disposal of masks, which contain respiratory droplets of people who wore them, may pose risk to those who may pick them up and then touch their own faces.
These also possess threats to marine life and wildlife habitats, as discarded masks and PPE products are piling up on our oceans, floating like jellyfish. Species like seabirds and sea turtles often choke on plastic debris, mistaking it for food.
Beyond that, there’s the risk of chemical contamination — as plastic debris slowly breaks apart into tiny fragments known as microplastics, it releases chemicals that may be harmful to the animals that end up eating it. Those animals include humans: Plastic ingested by smaller fish gets incorporated into the bodies of progressively larger animals, all the way up the food chain until it arrives on our dinner plates.
There’s more to the overabundance of plastic wastes making their way into the oceans. Plastic is a huge hazard before it’s even produced, as Petrochemical factories like plastic production plants are notorious for their disproportionate impacts on the communities. Toxic air emissions from these facilities have been linked to a litany of health problems, including cancer, heart disease, reproductive and developmental disorders, and respiratory diseases.
Moreover, as the COVID-19 pandemic emerged which caused restriction of public movement, having products delivered at one’s doorstep has become a new normal for many people. With increased reliance on online shopping and food delivery services and its convenience to consumers, these purchases come in one-time use plastic wraps. One delivery order creates an average of four plastic items. To add to this are the plastic bags used massively in the early days of the lockdown period for donated goods. This adds up to our country’s struggling waste management system.
The climate body calls on citizens, communities, and local governments to do more to address the environmental consequences of plastic wastes generated during this ongoing health crisis.
In accordance to the Implementing Guidelines of the Administrative Order No. 22-2013 issued by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, used masks and PPEs from hospitals, Barangay Health Centers, and clinics are considered hazardous (infectious) waste and should be treated carried out by Transport, Storage and Disposal (TSD) Facility.
As a precautionary measure, used masks and PPEs from households with Person/s Under Investigation (PUI), and Person/s Under Monitoring (PUM) should be treated as hazardous wastes as well and must be segregated into a separate bin or trash can prior to collection by TSD Facility personnel or crew.
Used masks and PPEs from offices, work places, and homes without PUIs and PUMs may be treated as residual waste. Thus, it must be stored separately, collected by eco-aides or garbage collectors equipped with Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), and be disposed into Category 3 or 4 Sanitary Landfill, accordingly.
As for individuals, refuse disposable plastic cutlery on food deliveries, and begin adopting more eco-friendly alternatives to plastic packaging materials, and support businesses offering more sustainable delivery packaging such as cardboard boxes or biodegradable bags.
Observing proper waste management is important, as waste segregation remains a struggle for most of the people. One of the biggest challenges in promoting sustainable behaviors is to break old habits and adopt new ones. This is to protect not just ourselves, but to protect the people around us, the marine life, and our world.