Coronavirus waste: A new form of pollution, putting marine environment at risk

Coronavirus waste: A new form of pollution, putting marine environment at risk

Mahmuda Amir Eva

The COVID-19 pandemic is going to be a history-altering event. The world is leading towards a different reality where every sector will sustain the post corona impact in different ways. However, an extraordinary feature of the corona outbreak has been both optimistic and pessimistic effects. For example, in Venice, its famous canals have been clearer, and marine life that hasn’t been seen in the city for many years is now visible. All this was possible due to a reduction in commercial activities along with reduced tourism. Due to the fall in human footfall, even the oceans are recovering and marine life is thriving. However, this is only a fraction of the full story.

Coronavirus waste has become a major concern and the marine environment is now the most vulnerable victim of this waste due to increased use, poor waste management system and curtailed recycling of the protective equipment’s like facemasks, gloves, and hand sanitizer bottles etc.

Coronavirus waste
Coronavirus waste

Coronavirus waste and marine environment

Marine Plastic Pollution (MPP) is a regular issue for the marine environment, which has already got out of control, particularly in Asia, where 95 percent of marine plastic waste originates. Actually plastic enters the oceans through direct dumping, indirect dumping, and leakage.

Meanwhile, the world’s oceans have become filled with hazardous plastic waste. Some eight million tons of plastics enter our ocean every year adding to the estimated 150 million tons already circulating in marine environments. Scenes of marine life adversely affected by this garbage have become a daily occurrence. News headlines of marine animal death strangled by plastic have become common phenomena.

Adding to MPP, coronavirus waste has become a new form of marine environment pollution. The COVID-19 crisis has generated a new kind of waste, which was not there till a few months ago, made up of disposable masks, gloves, and other Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) items.

The majority of plastic enters the oceans indirectly. This new kind of corona wastes also has a large tendency to enter oceans indirectly when they are thrown with regular waste. The wastes in cities – with its poor waste management systems – may make its way into local water bodies that connect to a river that then deposits those wastes into the ocean. Moreover, since plastic breaks down over hundreds of years, there are ample opportunities for strong winds, heavy rainfall, or landfill overflow to cause pieces of plastic to tumble and float into a body of water, where they will eventually enter the ocean.

Millions of rubber gloves and masks are being used and thrown away every single day. Waterlogged masks, gloves, hand sanitizer bottles, and other coronavirus waste are already being found on the seabed and washed up on the beaches. One study estimates that in the UK alone if every person used a single-use face mask a day for a year; it would create an additional 66,000 tons of contaminated waste and 57,000 tons of plastic packaging.

As there is a huge demand for PPE, since the virus has ravaged the entire world, and are needed every day by healthcare personnel to protect themselves, patients, and others while providing care, there is a growing concern that it will flood our oceans. The flooding of these PPE items can cause immediate danger to marine life. Marine life of all kinds can get entangled in these PPE items. For example, biologists revealed in the recent study that for sea turtles, water-filled latex gloves resemble one of their prey jellyfish, and ingesting them can lead to the death of turtles.

OceansAsia, an advocacy group, which investigates wildlife crimes, has issued an alarm that dolphins and porpoises are at risk of swallowing bundled mask while the group found mountain of masks in the Hong Kong’s Soko islands in February.

Legal obligation to protect marine environment

Coronavirus wastes
Coronavirus waste

The International Court of Justice (ICJ) in the Legality of the Threat or Use of Nuclear Weapons, 1996 (Advisory Opinion) noted that the environment is not an abstraction but represents living space, quality of life, etc. The marine environment thus also includes marine life, ecosystem on which human life and health are dependent.

According to article 1(4) of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) 1982 “marine environment pollution” means the direct-indirect introduction of substances, energy by man into the marine environment which has a deleterious effect as harm to living resources, marine life, etc. The indirect dumping of coronavirus wastes having a hazardous effect on the marine life is contributing to the marine environment pollution and such pollution can be addressed through the UNCLOS (United Nations Convention for the Law of the Sea); t

he London Convention (the Convention on the Prevention of Marine Pollution by Dumping of Wastes and Other Matter 1972, commonly called the London Convention); the MARPOL Convention (it stands for marine pollution, and is the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships); the Basel Convention (on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal, usually known as the Basel Convention); Customary Law, other regional agreements and states need to be in compliance with the obligations they have committed to.

Article 194 of UNCLOS, for instance requires states to prevent, reduce and control pollution of the marine environment from any source and also to take necessary measures to protect and preserve the ecosystem, threatened or endangered species and other forms of marine life.

Even states should carry out their specific obligations to protect and preserve the marine environment under any special or other related conventions as provided in Article 237 of the UNCLOS. The protection of the marine environment is also an obligation under customary international law. The ICJ in the 1996 Advisory opinion observed environmental law as part of customary international law and in Gabcicovo-Nagymaros Project (Hungary v. Slovak), 1997, confirmed the customary nature of international environmental law.

Considering one of the regional obligations, in 2018, the European Union has published several documents aiming to reduce marine plastic pollution and the use of disposable plastics. The draft EU directive “On the reduction of the impact of certain plastic products on the Environment” envisages various measures regarding plastic products found in the sea and also the European Commission has developed an EU strategy for plastics in a circular economy. On another note, in 2015, the UN General Assembly adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which aims to prevent and significantly reduce marine pollution of all kinds by 2025.

A healthy marine environment provides a foundation for all life. Therefore, proper waste management system, quick recycling program to protect the marine environment from rampant coronavirus waste is badly in need of consideration under regional, national, and international mandate by all states. South Asia Monitor