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More masks than fish

Sea Covid

Article by: Eric Shahzar

In a bid to flatten the COVID-19 curve, this year – more than half of the world was under lockdown. The World Economic Forum (WEF) stated that global carbon emissions dipped by 17% during this time. Our planet witnessed clear blue skies and drastic reductions in air pollution levels — a sight promising for the sustainability of our ecosystem.

However, today – with the second COVID-19 wave becoming more ferocious than the first one – it really does come with a hefty cost for our marine life. With all eyes on protecting our health systems and reviving our deteriorating economy – the health of our marine life has been historically neglected. As the production and demand for face masks and gloves quadrupled, Covid-19 waste is ending up in our oceans and threatening the marine life’s ecosystem, which has already been struggling to cope with pre-existing plastic waste. If no urgent action is taken, we will soon have more face masks than fish in our oceans.

Covid-19 waste has become a new source of pollution as single-use personal protective equipment (PPE) floods our fragile oceans. While conducting a litter exercise in France’s Cote d’Azur coast, Operation Mer Propre, a French non-profit organisation, found numerous gloves, masks and bottles of hand sanitisers in the Mediterranean along with the usual litter of plastic waste. This worrying discovery should be very appalling and embarrassing for us.

Covid-19 waste is not only visible in the Mediterranean, but it has become a global problem. The other side of the world faces the same predicament. OceansAsia, marine conservation organisation, discovered a huge number of single-use PPE waste during its plastic pollution research. Millions of masks were found on the Soko Islands, near the coast of Hong Kong.

The existing plastic pollution already remains one of the most pressing ecological challenges we face. Already, around 8 million tonnes of plastics waste enters our vulnerable oceans every year adding to the estimated 150 million tonnes already circulating in marine environments for decades. But the rise of COVID-19  waste in oceans is an ecological timebomb for marine life.

It takes one face mask 450 years to decompose in water. Today, millions of tons of single-use PPE are making their way to the oceans’ seabed. Countries are exploring different avenues to strengthen their existing healthcare infrastructure and they should not turn a blind eye to the ocean’s deteriorating health. Our oceans are on a ventilator but still produce almost 50% of the world’s oxygen and absorb 50 times more carbon dioxide than our atmosphere.

While COVID-19 waste is piling up on our ocean bed at an alarming rate, let’s not forget how accelerated climate change is disrupting marine life’s fragile eco-system. For decades the ocean has been absorbing more than 90% of the sun’s heat which has resulted in intense ocean acidification. As a result, half of the world’s coral reefs have disappeared, which holds the key in balancing marine biodiversity. For how long will we neglect these grim warnings?

In Pakistan too, our seas misery has now been exacerbated with an unprecedented scale of COVID-19 waste. Face masks, gloves and empty sanitizer bottles are ending up on our oceans. Not to forget, sewage water is being directly dumped into our seas since decades and the authorities have taken little or no action. It’s alarming that 400 million gallons of untreated sewage is dumped into the sea daily — a silent killer for marine life. According to the Adviser to CM on Environment, Murtaza Wahab, the coastline is controlled and supervised by the federal government and CBC. We must keep politics aside and urgently reverse marine life’s misery here.

Environmentalists have already raised their voices against the medical and plastic waste found at our vulnerable coast lines. All eyes and attention right now is on containing the spread of the pandemic but we should not let the ocean’s misery go unnoticed. Even though our beaches have been in a better shape since the lockdown has been imposed, the new wave of COVID-19 waste is adding fuel to fire.

What we urgently require is a strategic and proper functioning Solid Waste Management (SWM) program in Pakistan. Provinces have started SWM initiatives but unfortunately, lack of political will and resources have hampered progress. Our actions have not measured up to the challenge. Authorities must understand that creating an eco-friendly waste disposal plan will inevitably benefit everyone in the longer run. Constructive recycling techniques have been introduced and implemented all around the world. So what is Pakistan waiting for? In this moment of crisis, where COVID-19 and plastic waste is ending up at our shores and sea beds – revisit- ing our SWM policies is the need of the hour.

A recent program in Australia, called Net Technology, has been globally acknowledged. These drainage nets, also called “trash traps”, placed at the point where the drainage meets the ocean, are designed to prevent pollutants and plastic debris from flowing into the sea. Once the nets are full, they can be emptied into landfills for recycling. It is high time for authorities to install these drainage nets. Last year, on Twitter, President Arif Alvi also quoted it as an “interesting solution”, but nothing has been done since.

More than anyone else, civil society must play a pivotal role in eliminating Covid-19 waste. Citizens must become responsible for disposing of single-use PPE. We need to improve the way we manage our waste. Today, we see face masks lying on the streets, stuck on trees, and inevitably ending up in our vulnerable oceans. We are endangering the lives of our marine world in attempts to save our own.

The COVID-19 pandemic has given us an opportunity to not only build our health infrastructure but also invest in climate action, cleaner cities and sustainable oceans. For decades, human activities and accelerated climate change have endangered the marine life. Our oceans are drowning with COVID and plastic waste. Today is the time to reset our attitude towards our fragile oceans and consider its environmental impact on human survival. Let’s learn from our previous mistakes and reverse the ocean’s misery.

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