Covid-19 spelled disaster for the world economy, but the eco-conscious people also hoped it will have a positive effect indirectly – reduction of pollution. The lockdowns across the globe did bring down pollution in rivers and oceans. However, excessive use of disposable masks and their dumping meant disaster for these water bodies and marine life.
Masks became a disruptor of marine life
People were advised to use the masks without fail, and they did. So far, so good. However, few arrangements were done to properly dispose of them. Many just threw them in the open. Even when they used their dustbins, the masks eventually ended up in the landfills or rivers. A big chunk of these masks reached the oceans, disrupting marine life. This posed a severe pollution threat, forcing environmentalists to try and think out pollution.
While coronavirus did reduce industrial waste, a glut of mask waste is now threatening marine life. If you go to a seashore, don’t be surprised to find single-use masks floating like jellyfish. And if you dive down, be prepared to see latex gloves dispersed across the ocean floor. Masks have become a common sight even in remote islands.
In deep ocean waters as well as beaches, you can find discarded face masks. Its bad effects on marine life are tangible and it is not uncommon to find dead marine creatures with masks in their belly or stuck in the throat. The size of the mask misled them to believe it is their food and they gulped it, resulting in their death. This is a generally unknown aspect of Covid-19 and it is time we all recognize the threat and work on resolving it.
Most face masks take centuries to decompose
Made of polypropylene, a kind of plastic, or the fabric that takes a long time to decompose, these face masks do not disintegrate easily, which increases our responsibility. We need passionate and focused volunteers committed to do their bit and help slash down the threat of plastic pollution in ocean waters.
In most parts of the world, masks have been around for 7-8 months, yet the deleterious effect of these masks is easily visible. When the situation has become alarming in just a few months, you can imagine the outcome if the situation continues. Sure we don’t want the end of healthy and beautiful marine life because of Covid-19.
Damage to marine ecosystems needs to be prevented
While some of these masks have flowed into the water systems directly, many lightweight masks have been carried from land, boats, and landfills, often because of carelessness. Regular people need to be educated about the hazardous outcome of their careless behavior.
In the times of Covid-19, microplastics including masks have been found on the ocean floor in greater quantities. They have been found at places far from the shores, which suggests ocean currents and deep-sea circulation have carried these objects around. They are more likely to be found in areas that are biodiversity hotspots as well, causing heavy damage to marine ecosystems.
Mask particles and microplastics in biodiversity hotspots
Masks and other microplastics have been found in a thin layer near the seafloor in the biodiversity hotspots. Deep-sea currents work like conveyor belts accumulating these objects in hotspots. The microplastics have been an addition to plastic bags or straws which either settle down into the seabeds or wash up on the shorelines.
What makes the matters worse is that these hotspots are important breeding grounds for marine life. Filter-feeding ascidians, or sea squirts, which are prone to ingesting little pieces of plastics, grow in these parts of the sea. These hotspots are supportive of the growth of corals and sponges. The increasing pollution will result in the death of all these species.
Bristle worms residing within the sediment may ingest microplastics or the fabric of these masks, leading to their death and various fish species losing their source of nutrition. These ecosystems are fragile, feeding on nutrients and oxygenated water carried by the ocean currents.
How toxins return to humans’ plate
Masks deposited into the oceans tend to gather various pollutants and toxins while floating in the waters. Many toxins that have got accumulated in the guts of organisms will eventually end up entering the human body as we are at the top of the food chain. Organisms become the food of small marine creatures, which are themselves eaten by bigger creatures. A good number of these creatures such as tuna with all the microplastics and all the associated nastiness may be served to humans as their lunch or dinner.
Destruction of smaller marine creatures due to tiny fabric particles
Governments have been busy with controlling Covid-19, so there has been little attention officially on the pollution of marine life. There have been some supportive findings though, that can be helpful. One of these studies involves hermit crabs whose exposure to pollutants seemingly lessened their ability to choose new shells to reside in.
What is more, the tiny plastic particles found inside them were from textiles and clothing. Humans need to stand up to the situation and make sure immediate steps are taken to prevent these tiny particles from joining the ocean waters.
Govt intervention needed for the promotion of water treatment industries
We need a two-pronged fight to bring the situation under control. On one hand, we need governments to work on promoting water treatment industries so that these particles can be prevented from reaching the sea. Filtering techniques such as graphene and nitrocellulose filters are already there, but governments need to encourage industries to implement these.
Embrace of hemp face masks
On other hand, we need to use those fabrics for making masks, which decompose quickly. Hemp is the perfect replacement for making masks as it can quickly break down. Contrary to synthetic and cotton masks that take centuries to degrade, hemp decomposes in days. There is evidence of cotton in Harappa civilization which suggests processed cotton can last for several hundred years.
It is time to quickly switch to hemp for making masks and other textiles. When the planet is under so much strain, we need to take corrective steps with urgency.