The Coronavirus pandemic It was accompanied by unprecedented health and economic problems, particularly sociological and psychological, the extent of which is still being assessed. In the midst of the chaos, some things were prioritized and others were relegated: among the latter, concern for the environment. The international health crisis was not just a exponential growth of protective plastic items, such as chin straps and gloves, but also represented a reinforcement for the culture of elimination: all used, for fear of contagion, it was better to throw it away quickly.
The disposable chin straps are made of plastic, such as polypropylene, polyurethane or polyacrylonitrile. Therefore, the use and mismanagement of medical waste driven by the COVID-19 pandemic is contributing to the increase in plastic pollution. Carried by wind, streams, rivers and currents, these plastics have the potential to spread around the world and, under the influence of environmental conditions, decompose into microplastics.
Due to the persistence of plastics in the environment, waste of personal protective equipment (PPE) from Covid they have probably been a common waste in the environment for decades, which could affect the biota (set of species of plants, animals and other organisms) in different biological systems.
State of play: How plastic use increased during the coronavirus pandemic
At the start of the pandemic, WHO initially estimated the monthly PPE needs of healthcare professionals by 89 million medical masks, 76 million gloves, 1.6 million glasses.
According to a study by the Ocean Conservancy’s (a Washington-based nonprofit environmental advocacy group) study, cited by National Geographic and CONICET publications, each chin strap can release up to 173,000 microfibers.
The problem in which plastics degrade in what is called microplastics or nanoplastics is that it makes it almost impossible to recover them after the environment. According to specialists, through land and water, plastic fibers end up being absorbed by plants and animals and, ultimately, the Human being that these plants and animals consume.
Studies in Argentina: the danger of having pools of microplastics in our seas
CONICET researchers at the Argentine Institute of Oceanography (located in Bahía Blanca) carried out a study on solid waste management systems and pointed out that the pre-existing deficiencies in these systems were accentuated by the lack of preparation for the management of a greater volume of medical waste and by the that essential services, such as household waste collection, have taken a back seat, especially during quarantines.
The book, published last June in the magazine Total environmental science, predicts that most of these items made with polymeric materials will eventually form microplastic pools in our seas. The waste reaches the oceans carried by winds, rivers, tides, storm sewers or is dumped directly by humans.
The same researchers, including Dr. Melisa Fernandez Severini, who spoke to TN.com.ar, conducted a more recent field study that will be released soon. At White Bay recorded significant quantities of personal protective items, mainly chin straps, at an average of 13.5 chin straps per kilometer. How to register up to 7 chinstrap every 200 meters covered. In the city of Buenos Aires, the average has fallen to 100 meters. Mainly disposable chin straps in reusable polypropylene or fabric.
“There has been mismanagement all over the world and in the case of Argentina of course as well. The reality is also that he caught us all by surprise and blew up the use of plastic. Concerns about plastics have taken a back seat, but they have long-term repercussions. These plastics degrade over time and eventually form microplastics, ”explains Fernández Servini.
“These plastics end up in the organisms we consume: fish, shrimp, shrimp, as examples. We end up consuming these plastics, and we even breathe them, because the chin straps deteriorate with use and release particles. There are no studies that have shown that they cause death, but ultimately we breathe it in and it is likely that in the long run it will have health effects. A priori breathing plastic does not sound good, ”he adds.
Change of habits: in the face of the fear of the pandemic, the culture of elimination has taken hold
Specialists consulted by TN.com.ar, such as Clara Molteni, coordinator of Eco House Global (a non-profit organization specializing in education, politics, economics and volunteering for sustainability), agree that the The COVID-19 pandemic has led to changes in consumption patterns.
A good part of consumers have gone from worrying about environmental impacts to preferring plastic containers for hygiene and health reasons during the pandemic: packaging, disposable packaging or containers, due to the increase in food deliveries and “take out” packaging (take away, a word widely used in quarantine).
Melisa Fernández Severini, CONICET researcher
There has been mismanagement around the world and in the case of Argentina, of course, too. The reality is also that he caught us all by surprise and blew up the use of plastic. The concern for plastics has taken a back seat, but it has long-term repercussions. These plastics degrade over time and eventually form microplastics
“On the one hand, the culture of waste has greatly increased among people who feared being contaminated or even infecting others, the delivery and packaging that this implies have increased a lot and even many people have stopped separating their recyclables for fear of contagion. In restaurants, everything is now wrapped in plastic. This sort of thing stays a lot, not only because of the environmental impacts but also because people get used to the fact that this is the new reality and it’s okay, when it isn’t. In offices, from the pandemic, have been included again for different disposable health issues that had previously been disposed of for environmental reasons, which clearly motivates and promotes a culture of disposal, ”explains Clara Molten.
Recycling and reuse: is there a solution to the damage generated?
According to the UN, while historical figures predict the future, less than 10% of plastics used during the pandemic will be recycled ever, and over 70% will end up in landfills or the environment. Is the damage done or is there a way to reverse it?
“Unfortunately, we don’t want to give bad news, but great part of the damage is done, it’s pretty irreversible. What we can do now is encourage people to try to reuse as much as possible, do not use the chin strap and throw it away right away, try to use it for various uses. If we continue at this rate it will be fatal, we will end up being inundated with plastic everywhere, ”he says. Melisa Fernandez Severini.
Clara Molteni, coordinator of Eco House Global.
The culture of elimination was strongly reinforced among people who were afraid of being infected or even infecting others, the delivery and packaging that this implies has increased a lot and many people have even stopped separating their recyclables for fear of contagion.
Clara Molteni adds: “It is possible to reverse it, it seems a difficult road and against all winds but change begins with one, if each of us begins to realize the plastic problem and educates ourselves about super simple and affordable options that have a lot of durability, which reduce their environmental impacts and which also support companies that seek a triple positive impact, we add a huge grain of sand, if we are more and more and more people participating in change and raising our voices on the streets, in networks, in our homes, with our friends, in the places where we go to eat, the change that can be generated is enormous, let us be numerous, let’s stop and together we’re going to reverse this situation ”.
This story was written and shared as part of World News Day 2021. It is a global campaign to highlight the key role of data-driven journalism in delivering news and reliable information in the service of humanity. ## Journalism matters.
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