Marine pollution amidst COVID-19
According to Oceans Asia, we produce more than 300 million tons of plastic every year, and over 8 million tons of plastic waste enter the ocean. This is threatening our marine ecosystem as an estimate of 100,000 marine mammals are killed by plastic pollution annually. We know that plastic is terrible for our environment but do you know how it disrupts marine life?
First of all, plastic never fully decomposes. It breaks down into smaller pieces called microplastics. These microplastics can block the digestive tract and windpipe of marine animals, causing suffocation and malnutrition. Also, they release toxins that make their way up the food chain onto our table when we consume seafood. Apart from negatively impacting the health of marine animals, plastics also harm coral reefs. A study published in 2018 surveyed over 150 coral reefs in the Asia-Pacific region and found that many were entangled in plastic. Researchers discovered that corals are 20 times more likely to develop diseases when they are in contact with plastic.
Plastic debris threatens coral reefs by blocking light, releasing toxins and facilitating the invasion of pathogens. When corals get abrasions caused by plastics, they are susceptible to infections just like humans when we have an open wound.
Over the last decade, we have gotten better at reducing our plastic usage by using less single-use plastic products. Still, the COVID-19 pandemic has made it more challenging to limit our plastic waste. Some coffee shops refused to serve customers with reusable coffee cups, and some grocery stores discouraged customers from shopping with their reusable bags. Fears of the virus lingering on everyday items we use make many of us resort to single-use plastic products. Several states in the US have delayed or suspended laws that limit the use of single-use plastic products like bags and straws; they have banned customers from bringing their reusable bags to stores fearing that could be means of spreading the virus. When countries went into lockdown, and more people stayed at home for work, we saw a massive increase in online shopping and food delivery, which resulted in many plastic containers and plastic bags being thrown away. The increased use of plastic during the pandemic is a significant setback to years of campaigning activists and legislators have done to change consumer behaviour.
“These microplastics can block the digestive tract and windpipe of marine animals, causing suffocation and malnutrition. Also, they release toxins that make their way up the food chain onto our table when we consume seafood. Apart from negatively impacting the health of marine animals, plastics also harm coral reefs.”
Apart from plastic bags and food containers, items like masks, disposable gloves, and hand sanitiser bottles are also slowly making their way to the ocean. Oceans Asia has found face masks on the beaches in Hong Kong’s uninhabited Soko Islands. Across the globe, Opération Mer Propre, a French ocean clean-up organisation, has seen many gloves, masks and bottles of hand sanitiser lying in the Mediterranean Sea. This new form of marine pollution prompted Laurent Lombard, a representative of Opération Mer Propre, to speak up on social media, saying that we might end up with more masks than jellyfish in the Mediterranean.
It might seem like we have little control over our actions to reduce waste in this challenging time because we have to take into account infection control, local laws and store policies.
Here are 10 simple things you can still do to reduce waste (and disposing it correctly)
- Switch to bar soap and wash your hands more frequently to limit the use of hand sanitiser.
- Bring your own cloth or reusable bags when you shop.
- Shop at grocery shops that do not use plastics packaging and encourage shoppers to buy mindfully by only paying for the amount you need. See if there are any zero-waste bulk food stores in your city.
- Use a washable face mask.
- Refuse to take any disposable utensils or any extra plastic packaging. Instead, bring along travel stainless steel utensils or BYO food containers when ordering takeaways.
- Start experimenting with recipes you always want to try and avoid ordering delivery.
- If you must order delivery, make a note on your order to request no plastic utensils.
- If you have to use disposable gloves, choose biodegradable materials.
- Always dispose of surgical face masks and gloves in proper garbage containers.
- ALWAYS dispose your trash in the bin NOT in the ocean.
Before you say yes to taking or using a plastic product, think about where it will end up and who it can affect. Not only will the marine life reap the healthy benefits of a trash free ocean, your health will too!