Litter generated from disposable single-use masks and latex gloves is among the many downsides of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. These discarded personal medical clothing items are now seen strewn on the roads, sidewalks, and other public places. Besides being medically dangerous for humans who may come in contact with these discards and trigger another surge in virus cases, this infectious waste has trickled into the seas. It has rung alarm bells among people prompting #TheGloveChallenge on Instagram by Maria Algarra, the founder of a Miami-based organisation called Clean This Beach Up (Phillips 2020). There are nearly 1800 posts, and a sea surfing enthusiast has expressed fear that “this will all wash out to the bays and, in time, be distributed all over the world. These gloves will be in Greenland” (Baard 2020).
Meanwhile a French NGO, while conducting Opération Mer Propre (Operation Clean Sea) around the Antibes in the Mediterranean Sea, has raised concerns. It discovered surgical masks and latex gloves on the seabed along with other garbage such as cups and cans. It has released very disturbing images of the trash, which prompted the French government to announce hefty penalties on the offenders from the existing 68 to 135 Euro that could increase to 750 Euro depending on the severity (India.com 2020; Huet 2020).
Likewise, in Spain, the municipality of Toledo, a tourist town, has set fines ranging between 100 and up to 3,000 Euros (McMurtry 2020). A fisherman from Canary Islands has urged people to be careful while disposing masks and help oceans to stay clean; and scuba divers have found personal protective equipment (PPE) mixed with other usual plastic litter that already covers the seabed. Elsewhere, COVID-19 litter was found on the uninhabited Soko Islands near Hong Kong, and environmental groups warned that COVID-19 related trash has also been found on the waterfronts and beaches potentially affecting marine life and wildlife habitats (Reuters 2020).
The World Health Organization (WHO) has issued several warnings and advisories concerning the COVID-19. One of these is about the likely duration of the current pandemic: “This virus may become just another endemic virus in our communities and this virus may never go away” (Ibbetson 2020). Under the circumstances, it has identified face masks as an extremely important personal clothing to protect against coronavirus infections and prevent further transmission.
Some States have made it compulsory for people to wear masks in public places and announced penalties for non-compliance. For instance, in New Delhi, India’s capital, it is an offence to not wear a mask and it attracts cash fine as also a jail term under Section 188 (Disobedience to order duly promulgated by public servant) of the Indian Penal Code.
The current global demand for PPEs, latex gloves and single-use masks by non-medical workers i.e. common man is enormous and will continue to grow in the future. According to a market survey, the global market for disposable masks during the first quarter of 2020 was valued at 75 billion USD and is expected to grow at a rate of over 50 per cent annually over the next seven years (Broom 2020). It is fair to assume that COVID-19 litter will be found in the seas and the numbers will grow in the future as has been the case with plastic litter which already has leaked from land to the seas and formed massive gyres in the oceans.
This is a new challenge for marine environmentalists and ecologists who are visibly worried about yet another type of marine debris to deal with. Although there is as yet no data about the volume of COVID-19 litter that has trickled into the seas, it is not unimaginable that it could be in tonnes and continues to go into the seas and oceans through rivers, drains and other outlets similar to other trash which enters into the water bodies.
In the Indian context, in the past there were two instances in 2018 of medical litter found on the waterfront in Mahim and Dadar beach (Pandit 2020). This is notwithstanding the Bio-Medical Waste-Management Rules 2016 which clearly lay down the guidelines for disposal of biomedical waste.
In the instant case, this pandemic is unique given that the coronavirus has a longer survivability in the environment ranging from several hours or days which prompted the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) to issue detailed guidelines on handling Covid-linked biomedical waste as also spell out the agencies responsible for the collection/disposal, including labelling and handing over the same to the Common Bio-medical Waste Treatment Facility (CBWTF) (TOI 2020; The Economic Times 2020).
A mobile App specially intended to track collection and disposal of bio-medical waste has also been launched. While these are promising measures to monitor the disposal of medical waste on land particularly from Covid related medical facilities, there is ample evidence of COVID-19 related litter seen in public spaces as also thrown away as domestic trash/garbage. It is plausible that this type of litter is also being disposed of unscientifically and seeping into the rivers and thence into the seas as plastic marine debris.
The disposal of plastic waste in India is a major issue and programmes like Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, Clean Ganga and Smart Cities have been initiated by the Government of India to control litter towards building a sustainable environment. To spread awareness, 16 September each year is observed as coastal cleaning day.
There are now global calls for a sustainable recovery in the post-COVID-19 period given that nearly all sectors of the Blue Economy have suffered disruptions. The priority should continue to be on sustainable use of the oceans and its resources, and to rebuild sectors such as shipping, coastal and cruise tourism and fishing which are in extreme fiscal stress and necessitate stimulus packages including subsidies. In the context of the latter, it is important to keep the health of the oceans in top condition through bold “transitions towards sustainable, low-impact fisheries and to protect and restore marine biodiversity” (Campos 2020).
In his message on the occasion of the World Oceans Day, UN Secretary-General António Guterres has made a clarion call to the international community to improve their engagements with the sea and oceans. “As we work to end the pandemic and build back better, we have a once-in-a-generation opportunity – and responsibility – to correct our relationship with the natural world, including the world’s seas and oceans,” Similarly, a study by the ESCAP offers a ray of hope that “it is crucial to take advantage of the window of opportunity offered by reduced emissions and energy demand to protect the marine environment” (UN News 2020).
Humankind is now confronted with a dilemma to choose between ‘public health’ and ‘environmental degradation’. Human lives are important and so is the necessity to ensure that the seas and oceans are healthy; it cannot be at the expense of the other. The remedy lies in efficient COVID-19 discard collection arrangements, strengthening disposal mechanisms on land, public awareness programmes focused on civic sense-education among people, and adhering to other national and international safety protocols.
Dr Vijay Sakhuja is a former Director, National Maritime Foundation, New Delhi.
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