Ecosystem Restoration and PPE Pollution in COVID-19 Pandemic

Md. Nakibul Hasan Khan

Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD, 1992) defines an “‘ecosystem’ as a dynamic complex of plant, animal and micro-organism communities and their non-living environment interacting as a functional unit” (CBD, 1992). The term “ecosystem” can refer to any functioning unit at any scale which is determined by the problem being addressed (CBD, 1992). The main type of ecosystem includes: Farmlands; Forests; Freshwater: Lakes and rivers; Grasslands, Shrublands and savannahs; Mountains; Oceans and coasts; Peatlands; Urban areas.

Restoration is defined by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES, 2018) as “any intentional activity that initiates or accelerates the recovery of an ecosystem from a degraded state, whatever is the form or intensity of degradation. Restoration responses are diverse depending on the type of ecosystem in which they are to be applied (croplands, forests, rangeland, urban land, wetlands, etc.). 

Ecosystem restoration is defined as “a process of reversing the degradation of ecosystems, such as landscapes, lakes and oceans to regain their ecological functionality; in other words, to improve the productivity and capacity of ecosystems to meet the needs of society. This can be done by allowing the natural regeneration of overexploited ecosystems or by planting trees and other plants (UNEP, 2019).”

The objective of ecosystem restoration is to contribute to the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity as well as create social, economic, and environmental benefits, whereby healthy and connected ecosystems should contribute to improve food and water security, people’s livelihoods and to mitigate and adapt to climate change” (CBD, 2019). Considering ecosystems as socio-ecological areas which deliver multiple functions that benefit a diversity of stakeholders can help to identify the drivers of ecosystem degradation and loss, the existing interests to manage the landscape, economic issues and long-term goals for the ecosystem (IUCN, 2008).

All types of ecosystems are restoring naturally during this COVID-19 pandemic due to worldwide lockdown, movement restriction of people, reduction of fossil fuel burning etc. Different studies indicate that the COVID-19 pandemic situation significantly improves air quality in different cities across the world, reduces GHGs emission, lessens water pollution and noise, and reduces the pressure on tourist destinations, which may assist with the restoration of the ecological system. In addition, there are also some negative consequences of COVID-19, such as an increase of medical waste, careless use and disposal of disinfectants, mask, and gloves; and the burden of untreated wastes continuously endangering the environment.

The global coronavirus pandemic has created a new and completely unprecedented problem – the littering of personal protective equipment (PPE). People everywhere are wearing PPE to protect themselves from COVID-19. But when PPE is not disposed of properly, it pollutes the environment and endangers wildlife. Environmentalists and others are concerned about this growing problem.

Personal protective equipment, commonly referred to as “PPE”, is equipment worn to minimize exposure to hazards that cause serious workplace injuries and illnesses. These injuries and illnesses may result from contact with chemical, radiological, physical, electrical, mechanical, or other workplace hazards. Personal protective equipment may include items such as gloves, safety glasses and shoes, safety helmets, earplugs or muffs, hard hats, respirators, or coveralls, vests and full body suits eye protection, high-visibility clothing, safety footwear and safety harnesses.

Whilst we completely support the need for PPE to keep us safe during these testing times, we are concerned about how these single-use masks and gloves are being disposed of – and what this means for our planet. Between the end of February and mid-April this year more than a billion items of personal protective equipment were given out in the UK alone. In a hospital environment, these items are regarded as medical waste, but we’re seeing them littering our streets and washing up on beaches across the world. This litter represents not just a threat to the health of the people who encounter it and clean it up, but also to the environment as a whole.

Each year, at least 8 million tons of plastic enter the world’s oceans, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Now, this waste includes more PPEs. Experts estimate that up to 129 billion face masks and 65 billion gloves are used each month. PPE waste is a significant threat to oceans and marine life. PPE waste threatens other wildlife too. We’ve already seen beaches covered in masks across Asia and heard reports of birds entangled in them. The ‘Ocean Asia’ report states that plastic in the marine environment can have a devastating impact on wildlife and ecosystems. Face masks in the marine environment serve as a source of micro-plastic and could take around 450 years to fully decompose.

PPE will continue to be common until the pandemic ends. But there are steps we can take to reduce its environmental impact. Wear clean reusable masks. If we are using a disposable one, snipping the straps before throwing it out. This will prevent wildlife from getting tangled in them. Toss the mask in a garbage can with a secure lid.

This is especially important if the trash is outdoors. Masks are easily carried away by the wind. Recycling such PPEs would be a great solution. ‘PLAXTIL’a French company has already recycled 70,000 face disposable masks and turn them into a raw material to produce various plastic products. The remaining PPE which would neither be reuse nor recycle must be incinerated for the purpose of restoring an ecosystem.  

This is the right time to REIMAGINE about the PPE pollution, RECREATE new product from PPE waste, and RESTORE our ecosystem.

Author is an Editor-in-chief at The Environment Review

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