Face masks join bottles as major polluters
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An estimated 3.4 billion single-use face masks are being discarded daily across the world as a result of the Covid pandemic and exacerbating the levels of plastic waste to “unmanageable levels”.
Ahead of the annual International Coastal Clean-Up Day today, Wessa (Wildlife and Environment Society of South Africa) chief executive officer, Dr Andrew Baxter, who has just taken over the reins, said on Thursday that the pandemic had caused a major setback in efforts to reduce the volume of plastic waste accumulating in rivers and oceans.
“Recent studies indicate that millions of discarded single-use plastics (masks, gloves, aprons and bottles of sanitisers) now contribute substantially to the scourge of plastic waste worldwide and sadly, South Africa is no exception.
“The unanticipated occurrence of a pandemic of this scale has resulted in unmanageable levels of biomedical plastic waste, and it is estimated that about 3.4 billion single-use face masks are discarded daily, globally.
“Like most single-use plastics, these products invariably end up in the river systems and the oceans and will persist for many years to come as they gradually disintegrate into microplastics,” said Baxter.
He added that while there were visible pollutants such as oil spills and plastic pollution, there were also less than visible chemical pollutants, such as pesticides, herbicides, fertilisers, detergents, industrial chemicals and raw sewage in the water.
“We’ve seen horrific spills of toxic chemicals in KZN polluting the rivers, estuaries and the Durban coastline after a fire at a chemical warehouse in Cornubia,” said Baxter, who is based in Cape Town. He also raised concern over sewage wastage in the Cape and failure to manage waste disposal in Makanda in the Eastern Cape. He said this “will invariably find its way to the pristine Wild Coast along such rivers as the Great Fish”.
Baxter urged citizens to lend a helping hand in today’s Coastal Clean-Up, saying “a one-hour walk on the beach collecting rubbish can make a difference”.
Ten years ago, it took five people and 300 bags of collected waste a week to keep the Umgeni estuary clean: now the amount of pollution is “insurmountable”.
This is according to Wessa KZN Region’s Margaret Burger, whose team ‒ along with many environmental NPOs and conservation groups ‒ will be out cleaning beaches and rivers in the province for the International Coastal Clean-Up Day (ICCD) which sees volunteers across the world collecting rubbish.
Earlier this week, the Wessa crew were in the mangrove swamp in the Umgeni River estuary area, where 2-litre plastic bottles, pieces of polystyrene used for fast food packaging and Covid-19 disposable masks were among the litter clogging the banks.
Collecting the waste items in the mud, Burger said that every time it rains, litter comes from upriver settlements and stormwater drains, accompanied by raw sewage.
“There’s a lot of dirty rubbish here which even the recyclers don’t want. As there’s no natural flooding of the rivers anymore, the mud flats are increasing and the mangroves are moving upstream which has seen a decrease in birds,” said Burger.
NPO Adopt-A-River director Janet Simpkins said the major issue was plastic bottles coming from upstream, and they had even picked up discarded sealed packets of antiretroviral medicine. Adopt-A-River organises the International Coastal Clean-Up Day in the estuary.
The Adopt-A-River team collects waste from the estuary every day, and Simpkins said for International Coastal Clean-Up Day they would count different waste items. This information would be sent to research organisations, which collate the data to identify major pollutants and underlying causes.
Also this week UN chief Antonio Guterres called for “immediate, rapid and large-scale” cuts in greenhouse gas emissions to curb global warming and avert climate disaster.
Ahead of the annual UN General Assembly meeting scheduled for next week, Guterres fired a warning to governments that climate change was proceeding faster than expected and fossil fuel emissions had already bounced back from pandemic lows.
For more information on International Coastal Clean-Up Day, go to Adopt-A-River Facebook page.
The Independent on Saturday