- Coronavirus waste has become a new form of pollution as single-use personal protective equipment (PPE) floods our ocean.
- COVID-19 has had a number of unexpected impacts on the environment, curtailing recycling and increasing the use of plastic around the world.
- Governments need to act now to ensure a green recovery that incentivizes sustainability.
Between the end of February and mid-April this year more than a billion items of personal protective equipment were given out in the UK alone.
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That’s millions of gloves and masks being used then thrown away every single day - just in UK healthcare settings. So it’s not difficult to see why conservationists around the world are sounding the alarm over where all these single-use products are ending up.
Waterlogged masks, gloves, hand sanitizer bottles and other coronavirus waste are already being found on our seabeds and washed up on our beaches, joining the day-to-day detritus in our ocean ecosystems.
Along with photos and videos giving disturbing evidence of this new form of pollution, French clean-up charity Opération Mer Propre is among those calling for action. “There risks being more masks than jellyfish,” Laurent Lombard from the organization said in one Facebook post.
It’s just as much of a problem on the other side of the world. Back in February, OceansAsia flagged the growing number of masks being discovered during its plastic pollution research. Masses of masks were found on the Soko Islands, a small cluster off the coast of Hong Kong.
Adding to the problem
Already, some 8 million tonnes of plastics enter our ocean every year, adding to the estimated 150 million tonnes already circulating in marine environments.
One study estimates that in the UK alone, if every person used a single-use face mask a day for a year, it would create an additional 66,000 tonnes of contaminated waste and 57,000 tonnes of plastic packaging.
What is the World Economic Forum doing about the coronavirus outbreak?
Responding to the COVID-19 pandemic requires global cooperation among governments, international organizations and the business community, which is at the centre of the World Economic Forum’s mission as the International Organization for Public-Private Cooperation.
Since its launch on 11 March, the Forum’s COVID Action Platform has brought together 1,667 stakeholders from 1,106 businesses and organizations to mitigate the risk and impact of the unprecedented global health emergency that is COVID-19.
The platform is created with the support of the World Health Organization and is open to all businesses and industry groups, as well as other stakeholders, aiming to integrate and inform joint action.
As an organization, the Forum has a track record of supporting efforts to contain epidemics. In 2017, at our Annual Meeting, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) was launched – bringing together experts from government, business, health, academia and civil society to accelerate the development of vaccines. CEPI is currently supporting the race to develop a vaccine against this strand of the coronavirus.
World leaders and politicians are aware of the problem - and that it needs to be addressed.
“Maritime nations know far better than anyone how our ocean economies are dependent on ocean health,” said Zac Goldsmith, Minister, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in the UK in a recent World Economic Forum webinar about ensuring a green recovery.
“But we all ultimately depend on our shared oceans and changing the role that plastic plays in every part of our economy.
“Efforts to tackle plastic pollution can help us improve ocean health, tackle climate change, support biodiversity and build sustainable livelihoods.”
COVID-19’s cost to the environment
Single-use plastic waste is not the only impact COVID-19 is having on the environment.
Despite a temporary crash in carbon emissions as lockdowns have meant fewer people travelling and less industrial activity, there are concerns the pandemic will divert governments’ attention away from green issues.
The UN’s COP26 climate change conference, set to be held in November 2020, has already been postponed.
In some US cities, recycling programmes have been paused, while parts of virus-hit Italy and Spain also put a hold on recycling.
The quarantine economy has driven more people online, resulting in greater packaging waste from deliveries. Medical waste has rocketed.
Import and export restrictions, as well as declines in the availability of cargo transportation, mean that large amounts of food have also gone to waste. And as this organic waste decays it will release greenhouse gases.
And unless economic stimuli focus on green initiatives, there is a risk of a sudden upsurge in polluting activity as construction and manufacturing are used to drive recovery from the global downturn the virus has created.
“Let this moment be a wake-up call for all of us,” Goldsmith says. “As countries emerge from the pandemic, we will all have to find ways to rebuild and to renew.
“And I think that gives us a one-off huge opportunity to choose a different path - one that ensures environmental sustainability and resilience are the lens through which we make decisions and map out our recovery.”