We have read reports all around the world of an environmental silver lining brought about by the Coronavirus pandemic – smog giving way to blue skies, a drop in air pollution levels, wildlife moving about on their own accord and an increase in marine life. Whilst nature seems to be rebounding, in the short term, there has been a rapid surge in the use of gloves, masks and other personal protective equipment, which if not disposed of properly will result in negative consequences for wildlife and the fight against plastic waste, especially marine pollution.
This is particularly worrying when realising that 80% of global marine litter is land-based, and annually between 4.6-12.7 million tonnes of plastic waste finds its way into the world’s oceans. Marine plastic pollution harms marine life through ingestion and entanglement, violates ecosystem health, inhibits marine plant growth, and transports pathogens that may cause diseases to marine animals and plants. Marine litter can also enter the human food chain, when microplastics are ingested by fish which are later eaten by people. Economic losses associated with marine plastic include reduced fishery yields, damage to shipping infrastructure and declining tourism amenities. Combining marine plastic trash with chemical/nutrient pollution of marine environments provides a more comprehensive picture of marine pollution, and the extent of challenges associated with an increased concentration of chemicals in the oceans.
The pandemic has resulted in more room for animals to thrive even amidst the margins of urbanised existence. Water in the Venice canals have temporarily cleared due to a reduction in boat traffic which stirs up sediment in the water. Increased reports of bottlenose dolphin sightings in Maltese ports could even be related to the decline in maritime traffic to slow down the virus’ spread.
Whilst it is too early to assess the impact of the pandemic on the amount of plastic packaging waste which is being generated in 2020, the pandemic is prioritising hygiene and human health. Plastics have a crucial role to play in the pandemic by protecting frontliners from catching the virus and to limit its spread. However, plastic industry members are taking advantage of the uncertainty and are working to reinstate the widespread use of plastics, e.g. repeals of single-use plastic laws in the US, resulting in a higher demand for bottled water, PPE, single-use plastic bags and packaging. Even some supermarkets in the US, are refusing reusable bags and are handling single-use plastic bags instead!
The pandemic has created the requirement to choose between protecting public health and protecting the environment, one choice being at the expense of the other. We should remember that ocean/sea health is intimately related to our health, and not just of those who live near the coast. Marine biodiversity is very rich and provides useful resources for humans, e.g. certain bacteria found in deep oceans are being used to carry out rapid testing of the Covid-19 virus. There are numerous environmental solutions to the challenges that threaten human kind. Now, more than ever, humankind needs to strive to protect the ocean rather than fill it with waste and plastic. Hopefully, this pandemic signals out a larger truth – how much waste we produce and how it is being managed!