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Oceans fall victim to COVID as masks end up as litter

Recent UN studies unmask worsening plastic pollution in Asia and elsewhere

TOKYO -- Mountains of disposable face masks and gloves used to protect against the novel coronavirus are being dumped into rivers and oceans around the world, causing serious damage to fisheries and ecosystems.

The U.N. Conference on Trade and Development on July 27 released its forecast on the effect of pandemic-related plastic waste floating in the ocean. "The negative spillover effects of plastic waste on fisheries, tourism and maritime transport, for example, add up to an estimated $40 billion each year," the U.N. body said in a report.

The U.N. estimates that global sales of disposable face masks will increase 200 times from a year ago to $160 billion this year, and around 75% of the used masks and other pandemic-related plastic waste will end up in landfills or floating on the seas.

"Our streets, beaches and ocean have been hit by a tidal wave of COVID-19 waste including plastic face masks, gloves, hand sanitizer bottles and food packaging," the UNCTAD report says.

Nonwoven masks are made of synthetic fibers, including polyester. But restricting the use of nonwoven masks is difficult as they have antibacterial effects and are useful in preventing droplet infections.

The Tara Ocean Foundation, a France-based maritime environment research institution, in June surveyed 10 major rivers in Europe, and found masks and gloves in all of them. At least more than 100 masks were recovered in a survey along the coast of southern France in June.

In Singapore, residents discarded an additional 1,470 tons of plastic waste from takeout packaging and food delivery during its eight-week lockdown before it was eased on June 1, the UNCTAD report says.

Boys scavenge near the slums of Makassar City, South Sulawesi, Indonesia, which is dealing with one of the worst COVID-19 outbreaks in Asia.   © AP

According to Umisakura, a Japanese nonprofit organization that has cleaned up beaches in Fujisawa, Kanagawa Prefecture, for more than 10 years, more masks are being found on Japan's beaches as the coronavirus spreads further. The nonprofit used to find only a single mask a day before the coronavirus pandemic but now finds more than 10 masks per 30-minute cleanup.

An increase in takeouts in lieu of dining out to prevent the spread of the coronavirus has also contributed to an increase in plastic waste. In Japan, domestic production of "other foam products," including food packaging, in April rose 6.7% on the year and 0.9% in May, according to the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry's production statistics.

That said, it is difficult to accurately assess how much pandemic-related waste has ended up in landfills or is afloat at sea. Scientists have been forced to refrain from conducting maritime research to avoid the so-called three Cs -- closed spaces with poor ventilation, crowded areas and close-contact settings -- aboard ships.

"Conducting surveys on ocean plastic waste is still difficult," said Kyushu University professor Atsuhiko Isobe, "but the more face masks and other protective gear are used, the more likely plastic waste will pour into the sea. We need to continue our efforts to reduce single-use plastics, but we will have no choice but to use them from a hygiene perspective."

When it hosted the G-20 summit last year, Japan formulated the Osaka Blue Ocean Vision, which aims to reduce additional pollution by marine plastic litter to zero by 2050. The country plans to compile a progress report in mid-September based on data from countries that supported its call. But many countries look too busy tackling the coronavirus to take effective measures to reduce their plastic waste.

Japan also plans to help Southeast Asian nations introduce plastic waste disposal technology as many of them are grappling with their own mountains of plastic trash. The country said in its infrastructure imports strategy, compiled in July, that it plans to export more of its waste disposal technology to the region, which lacks enough collection facilities.

Japan will also consider helping Southeast Asian countries develop greener face masks, including those made of plant-based materials.

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