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An increase in pandemic litter demonstrates a direct relationship between national policies and the occurrence of abandoned waste, including face masks and other COVID-19-related personal protective equipment.

For instance, as one of the many types of personal protective equipment, a face mask has begun turning up as litter since the surge of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Face masks are a crucial protective measure against COVID-19; however, it is apparent that face mask litter would be a by-product of this global health crisis. Isn't it concerning that the same materials that protect humans from COVID-19 are also responsible for a worldwide garbage crisis?

 covid-19 and littering

Let's recall the following events that have caused another major problem in our society.

January–March 2020

This was early within the COVID-19 pandemic. As governments struggled to look out for sufficient personal protective equipment, the foremost standard advice to the public was maintaining a safe distance from other people, either socially or physically. Mask and glove litter were both low at that time since people had just started to wear protective equipment, but glove litter began to rise first.

March-May 2020

The World Health Organization (WHO) classified COVID-19 as a global pandemic on March 11, 2020. People were forced to stay at home during this time as extreme lockdowns were implemented in numerous countries worldwide.

Since countries began recommending the use of face masks, the percentage of mask litter has steadily increased. In fact, mask litter doubled from March to April of the year.

June–October 2020

On June 5, 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) officially advised using face masks as a public health measure to prevent the spread of the virus. Mask litter significantly increased during these months since people became more aware of its use.

This coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) began as a public health emergency posing a severe danger to many parts of our society. However, as time passes, this pandemic also produces an environmental issue, which could impact the ecosystem and wildlife.

Increased Medical Waste

One of the negative results of COVID-19 is the tremendous increase in domestic and medical waste.

These wastes are generated from healthcare facilities, medical laboratories, and biomedical research facilities–which, if not properly disposed of, could cause a substantial danger of disease transmission not only to the health workers and waste workers but also to the general public.

Following the announcement that the outbreak began in Wuhan, China, this city was one of the first to notice significant pollution problems. They created 224,000 kilograms of medical waste each day during the pandemic, up from 41,000 kilograms just before the outbreak.

Can you believe that's the equivalent of 100 extra-large pickup trucks? That's definitely concerning. That is why we should not dismiss medical waste as merely a garbage problem, especially when some experts estimate that over 5 million people die each year due to toxic substances released by medical waste.

It is challenging during an infectious disease outbreak that the waste generated by healthcare facilities increases exponentially; it's just that management must take extra precautions to minimise negative consequences and further spread of the virus.

Single-Use Plastics

During the COVID-19 pandemic, a variety of plastic-based personal protective equipment (PPE) played a critical role in keeping people safe. These single-use plastics include masks, gloves, sanitiser bottles, protective medical suits, and food takeout plastics (See our waste bins).

It is also noticeable that people have used plastic grocery bags only once and then thrown them away to avoid contamination by the virus. However, the increased usage of single-use plastics poses a serious threat to our society–in wildlife and the ecosystem.

The issue is that people may not realise that masks and gloves don't only make up a minor percentage of global trash. We fail to understand that these masks can contribute to serious trash problems, especially because they are now a part of our daily lives that provide protection against the transmission of infectious viruses.

Environmental Impacts of Littering

Direct harm to wildlife

This pandemic has caused a new wave of litter: face masks and gloves. Personal protective equipment (PPE) is being utilised more frequently to safeguard humans from this virus–which also means an increase in PPE littering our environment.

While they are not good for human health, these plastics also have enormous impacts on animals. In fact, countless animals are already killed by plastics. Entanglement, entrapment, and ingestion are some of the risks animals may encounter with our excessive use of plastics.

They may also die in starvation since plastic can obstruct the digestive tract resulting in death. Another example is entanglement, which can also result in the immediate death of animals due to suffocation or drowning that may exhaust them.

Threat to global ocean

Pandemic waste impacts not only humans and wildlife but also the ocean environment. For instance, discarded plastics can be transported in the oceans, which may cause injury or death to marine wildlife. 

The plastic waste may also aid in species invasion and the transmission of pollutants such as the COVID-19 virus. It is really alarming that the excessive use of plastics during this pandemic now enters the global ocean, which means danger to various species living in it. Indeed, COVID-19 has worsened the ocean plastic pollution problem.

What now?

Littering of garbage, particularly hazardous waste, negatively impacts both land and water. It harms the ecosystem, wildlife, and sea creatures, as well as endangering people's lives and deteriorating the health of our habitats.

To avoid littering and help mitigate any risk to public health, we must learn proper waste management practices in keeping ourselves and the community safe during this COVID-19 pandemic.

The following are some of the protective measures against COVID-19:

Preparing Household Trash

Please place all trash in plastic bags and secure them tightly. Ensure that all garbage is inside your container to keep the collectors safe from any possible transmission of COVID-19.

Recycling in Healthy Household

To avoid possible disease contamination, ensure that all recyclables are cleansed, then put them in your recycling bin. This way, you will help reduce the increasing amount of plastics littered in your community. You might also use them in making unique and creative crafts.

Final Thoughts

Following the outbreak of Coronavirus disease, pandemic waste has become a serious concern in our society. That's why people, to the best of their ability, should always dispose of PPEs and single-use plastics properly to keep everyone safe and healthy while keeping a litter-free environment.

Read our article on: Best and Cleanest Beaches in the UK

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