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During COVID-19, 129 billion masks and 65 billion gloves are being consumed, while 42 billion plastic cups and 40 billion plastic bottles are being used on a monthly basis. This is contributing to a rise in major health and environmental issues such as entanglement of wildlife, microplastic bioaccumulation, even reproduction issues in people, eight women in STEMM from #TeamHB4 and #TeamHB5 have found. The solution: a global effort similar to the Antarctic Treaty. 

Photo: The eight researchers say plastic waste from COVID-19 masks, gloves, plastic cups and bottles during the pandemic are contributing to major health and environmental issues. Credit: Unsplash.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated plastic pollution and an urgent global effort is needed to reverse the contamination, a group of women STEMM researchers who met on the Homeward Bound leadership program in Antarctica have found.

The group’s interdisciplinary review of the increasing threats of the plastic pollution crisis has been published in Science of the Total Environment.

They found the significant increase in the global consumption and disposal of single-use protective items such as masks and gloves are contributing to a rise in major health and environmental issues such as entanglement of wildlife, microplastic bioaccumulation, even reproduction issues in people.

The group highlights that globally, and on a monthly basis during COVID-19, 129 billion masks and 65 billion gloves are being consumed, while 42 billion plastic cups and 40 billion plastic bottles are being used.

They are calling for a global effort similar to the Antarctic Treaty to manage the plastic crisis.

“The sheer scale of plastic use and the increase in single use plastic production due to the COVID-19 pandemic is astounding,” lead author Marga Rivas from the Centre of Excellence of Marine Science in the Department of Biology, University of Cádiz said.

“Prior to 2020, global progress had been forged in the reduction of single-use plastics, and reusables had become a global movement. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated plastic pollution as people turn to single-use items to protect themselves from infection. Given plastics are a major threat facing humans and wildlife, swift action to reduce plastic pollution is urgently needed.”

Studies showed a more than six times increase in healthcare waste during the pandemic and a rise in personal protective equipment (PPE) pollution on 30 per cent of surveyed beaches. COVID-19 face masks are now a significant source of microfibres in the environment with each mask that ends up in the ocean releasing 173,000 fibres per day plus heavy metals such as lead, cadmium and antimony.

“Plastics have an impact on human health, wildlife and our environment and the threat of these dangers has escalated during the pandemic as people choose seemingly more hygienic options, unaware of the long-term plastic impacts of these choices,” Elisabeth Deschaseaux from the Centre for Coastal Biogeochemistry at Southern Cross University said.

“Plastic poses a threat to all forms of life and the ingredients essential to its manufacture cause further adverse effects. Health issues are as wide-ranging as various cancers, organ damage, reproductive disorders and inhibition of development in babies.”

HB4 group photo in Antarctica

Photo: The eight researchers are from Homeward Bound cohorts 4 and 5. Clockwise from top left: Marga Rivas, Ingrid Albion, Elisabeth Deschaseaux, Kathryn Piazza, Siobhan Heatwole, Blanca Bernal, Marissa Parrott, Rebecca Handcock.

The most visible effects of plastic are seen on marine wildlife, with more than 900 marine species being entangled in or having ingested plastic that entered the oceans in 2010 alone. “With the use of PPE on the rise, we can expect the impact of such plastic pollution to worsen,” Marissa Parrott from Wildlife Conservation and Science at Zoos Victoria said.

The researchers are calling for urgent global, measurable and time-bound reduction and elimination targets for plastic pollution.  “A key example of such a global agreement is the Antarctic Treaty, proving that diverse nations can unite for a common, important cause and that such long-term measures can be instigated and successful,” Siobhan Heatwole from the Centre for Sustainable Ecosystem Solutions at the University of Wollongong said.

“Companies and governments must be held accountable for the sale of single-use plastics and move towards a net plastic reduction, and then single-use plastic elimination strategy.”

Appropriate and reliable funding is also needed to remove existing plastics from the environment, and to further recycling, research, and innovative programs to create sustainable solutions.

Economic incentives and recognition for companies cutting plastic waste could drive business and personal behavior change towards a sustainable future, the group said.

“As a personal move, people could also cut the ear loops of masks before disposing of them and use simple strategies like blowing bubbles – not balloons – at outdoor events, to stop wildlife being entangled,” Dr Parrott said.

“We also must stop using single use coffee cups and bottles which are wrapped in plastic and return to a more sustainable practice.”

“Environmental education is vital – we want people to understand the threats we all face from this plastic pandemic and how both individual, everyday actions and collective resolve are part of the cure,” Ingrid Albion from the Australian Association for Environmental Education, Tasmania Chapter, said.

“As the international community did for the Antarctic Treaty, during COVID-19 we need to work together and make global and individual commitments to be nature’s guardians for a better future.”

HB4 group photo in Antarctica

Photo: Most of the women in STEMM researchers were part of the Homeward Bound cohort 4, seen here holding a banner for the 60th anniversary of the Antarctic Treaty on board the ship in Antarctica, 2019. Credit: Will Rogan for Polar Latitudes.

The eight authors – from Spain, Australia and the US – met when they travelled to Antarctica during the 60th anniversary of the Antarctic Treaty with Homeward Bound, a groundbreaking leadership initiative for women with a STEMM background.

“We discovered that even this remote and seemingly pristine environment was not unharmed,” Dr Parrott said.

“We learned of accounts of microplastics in the wildlife around us and had the sobering experience of seeing a shampoo bottle wash ashore before our eyes. This shared experience united us to act to help curb the growing plastics crisis.”

Read the study.

Full list of authors: Marga Rivas (HB5), Kathyn Piazza (HB4), Siobhan J. Heatwole (HB4), Blanca Bernal (HB4), Rebecca Handcock (HB4), Ingrid Albion (HB4), Elisabeth Deschaseaux (HB4), Marissa Parrott (HB4).

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