What are the impacts of the Coronavirus on the ocean and marine life?
Due to the pandemic a plethora of medical waste has been strung across beaches and oceans, putting marine ecosystems into harms way.
Oceans are already facing numerous problems including whaling, illegal fishing, over fishing, acidification, and pollution. We are already at fault for the deteriorationof the oceans, but with an increase in plastic usage due to the pandemic we have seen masks and medical waste strung across beaches and floating in oceans. Covid- 19 should not be another excuse for the world to forget the dire need to progress with finding new solutions to protect our dying planet. It is hypothesized that over 1.56 billion face masks could end up polluting our oceans. It is estimated that face masks will add 4,860- 6,240 tons of extra plastic waste to the oceans, and this is not including plastic gloves and other medical waste.
Before the Covid- 19 outbreak, it was already a known fact that ocean pollution is a huge issue. In fact, everyday nearly 8 million pieces of plastic find their way into oceans. With 129 billion face masks being used every month, it is crucial that they are disposed of properly so they do not end up in places where they impose danger. The UN Environment in 2018 estimated that 13 million tons of plastic enters the ocean annually. For example, the Great Pacific Garbage patch for example which occupies 1.6 million square km of the ocean, roughly 3 times the size of France. This devastating mass will only grow with the continued littering of masks and medical waste. It is crucial that we change our daily routines to adapt more eco- friendly rituals like wearing a re- usable mask.
How to properly dispose of a disposable face mask:
clean hands; remove starting from behind the ear
pull mask away from your face
discard in a trash can
wash hands with alcohol based hand soap
Medical face masks are made of a material called polypropylene. Scientists estimate that it was take up to 450 years for them to fully decompose and disappear from the environment. If not disposed of properly, masks will worsen the already terrible marine litter crisis, also affecting flora and fauna. Along the decomposition process, masks take the form of micro- plastics which will be ingested by marine life and block their digestive tract which decreases growth and in the long run reproduction ability. Plastic can also bioaccumulate through the predator prey relationship. This increases the toxicity and plastic particles in predators.
Impact on fisheries:
The tons and tons of littered plastics not only negatively impacts the aesthetic of the beach but the ecosystem as well. With depleting fish numbers due to inhabitable ecosystems due to plastic and over fishing, coastal communities will also suffer due to their loss of business. Small coastal communities may not have any other source of income or work due to their geographical location, so it is important that this issue is dealt with in an affective and quick manner. Fishing equipment is the number one source of plastic pollution in the ocean. Ghost fishing gear adds 640,000 tons of extra plastic to the world’s oceans. Add this number to the amount of masks currently being pumped into the ocean, and you see just how drastic and imminent it is that governments and people take action. Fisherman are writing their own death sentence unless overall plastic usage diminishes quickly.
Biodegradable face masks:
The University of British Columbia has come up with the concept for an equally as efficient face mask that is created from paper. These biodegradable face masks are constructed from natural cellulosic fibres and nano- materials made from wood. 80% of paper is recycled in countries where as only 4% of polypropylene is recycled back into other plastics. According to Orlando Rojas, Professor and Canada Excellence Research Chair, and Scientific Director at the BioProducts Institute, “compared to a surgical mask the breathability is pretty good, probably better, and then, what matters the most, the filtration efficiency is up to a standard of a surgical mask, even a little bit better.”
Reusable face masks are also a viable option. They may be more expensive but the pros outweigh the cons. Reusable masks are very easily to locate. They can be found in gas stations, grocery stores, and clothing companies local or global.
This website shows some different companies that have sustainable face masks for purchase. I recommend checking it out and purchasing some! Supporting local and small businesses is so important right now so check out local and online shops. There are some examples in the link above.
UnMasking the Truth
The carelessness of human nature has caused the corruption of hundreds of different ecosystems including the Amazon Rainforest, Great Barrier Reef, and Temperate Grasslands. With the introduction of Covid-19, we have let loose on our efforts to console and rehabilitate our environment. There is hope at the end of the tunnel with the introduction of the vaccine and the hope that soon the pandemic will be suppressed and we can rid our selves of masks. But, until that day comes, we need to be much more progressive with our actions and continue to think about how our actions affect the environment, especially marine life. There is so much beauty and life that we will lose if we continue down the same path and do not learn from our previous actions.
The conversation does not end with eliminating disposable face masks. Ocean pollution is a huge issue that needs our immediate attention. Please take the time to educate yourself about what you can do to help.
I encourage everyone right now to be especially cognizant of their actions and to make sure you think about how what you are doing may impact the rest of the world. Also, please remember if you are wearing a disposable face mask to dispose of it properly to ensure a safe and healthy ocean. Or better yet invest in a reusable mask. Here are the websites and PDF’s that I used, and I strongly encourage you all to read: