Humanity is sleepwalking into another disaster, thanks to a trend that’s emerged amid the pandemic

Face masks being produced in a factory
Tracy Keeling

Everyone, apart from UK health secretary Matt Hancock on occasion, understands what a vital shield personal protective equipment (PPE) is from coronavirus (Covid-19). But it appears that many people have forgotten the other, immense existential threat to their survival – the climate crisis – amid the panic. Because people are carelessly discarding their face masks and plastic gloves. This waste will ultimately end up in our oceans, our green spaces, and across our lands.

Tackling plastic pollution, particularly in our oceans, plays a major part in addressing the climate crisis. Plastics in our waters are devastating wildlife. As the Marine Conservation Institute points out:

The ocean is the largest ecosystem on Earth, it is the planet’s life support system. Oceans generate half of the oxygen we breathe and, at any given moment, they contain more than 97% of the world’s water…

Living oceans absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and reduce climate change impacts. The diversity and productivity of the world’s oceans is a vital interest for humankind. Our security, our economy, our very survival all require healthy oceans.

So we’re sleepwalking into another disaster if we sacrifice more of the natural world by acting recklessly amid the pandemic.

Raising the alarm

Environmentalists raised the alarm about discarded PPE as people shared images on social media using the hashtag #TheGloveChallenge, started by Mariajose Algarra of Clean This Beach Up.

As OceansAsia reported in February:

During a recent survey trip to the Soko’s islands [a group of islands close Hong Kong’s Lantau Island] the OceansAsia team finds masses of surgical masks washing up on the shoreline. …

Over time the team has seen the odd mask here and now, however this time they were all along the high tide line and foreshore with new arrivals coming in on the current.

Speaking to the Independent, co-founder of OceansAsia Gary Stokes commented:

The way I see these masks in the environment is just another addition to the ever-growing marine debris crisis our oceans are facing. No better, no worse, just shouldn’t be there in the first place. I’m waiting to hear of the first necropsy that finds masks inside a dead marine animal. It’s not a question of if, but when.

Meanwhile, founder of the Hong Kong-based group Plastic Free Seas Tracey Read told Reuters:

People think they’re protecting themselves but it’s not just about protecting yourselves, you need to protect everybody and by not throwing away the mask properly, it’s very selfish.

Learning lessons

Plastics are a major scourge on our environment. As Brooke Bauman pointed out in Yale Climate Connections, they “originate as fossil fuels and emit greenhouse gases from cradle to grave”. They are largely made from fossil fuels and are “greenhouse-gas intensive” during production. Dealing with plastic waste is also polluting, especially when it’s incinerated. Of course, much of our plastic waste ends up in the natural world, with grave consequences for wildlife and, ultimately, humanity, which depends on healthy ecosystems.

Damaging our environment further because of recklessness amid the pandemic is beyond short-sighted. Especially as many suspect the pandemic itself is a consequence of our self-centred and foolhardy interaction with the natural world.

Instead, let’s learn the lessons our world is forcing us to currently endure. Respect and care towards the planet, not recklessness and mindless exploitation, is the way forward.

Featured image via blueplanetsurf/YouTube

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  • Show Comments
    1. Ok, yes I wholeheartedly support the views of this article, but really, is this the time?
      People are worried about dying right here right now, and tossing away PPE waste or not is a tiny addition to a huge ongoing problem. When people are worried about their lives and those of their families I think it’s understandable that they become a little selfish. It is far more real to people than global pollution.

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