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A Double Edged Sword: But it’s Plastic

Words by Angelo Pagulayan

Art by Peppi Escasa

“Soon, we’ll run the risk of having more masks than jellyfish in the Mediterranean,” says Laurent Lombard of Opération Mer Propre on his social media two months ago.

This statement supports the fact that there is something that has been washed ashore during this global health crisis – and it’s a potential threat to us and to the future generation.

While we understand the depth of the COVID-19 pandemic into our health and security, the worldwide lockdown could have been a great opportunity for the planet to rest. However, it seems that we are still grappling with the same burden on pollution just like before the pandemic. With environmental activists worldwide raising concerns regarding the plastic pollution, bottles of hand sanitizers, “COVID-19 waste” such as masks and gloves used as personal protective equipment (PPE), takeout containers and other single-use plastic items unleashed a tidal wave of problems that endanger our marine biodiversity.

This surge of “COVID-19 waste” suggests that the COVID-19 problem didn’t stop by just imposing a real threat among millions of lives and halting the usual processes of the modern world – it also ‘unmasked’ more alarming societal and environmental problems while highlighting the grave threat of currently existing problems that have always been begging for humanity’s utmost attention. 

Substantial evidence on this issue has strengthened as similar incidents surfaced during this public health crisis. In France, a beach clean-up effort last late May led by members of a nonprofit organization, Opération Mer Propre (Operation Clean Sea), went viral after they posted pictures of plastic litter that they have recovered along Côte d’Azur. Joffrey Peltier, a member of the organization, stated that the numbers of the recovered plastics were only a few. However, it provides a glimpse of a bigger scenario as we turn to single-use plastics to grapple against the virus – shedding light on a seemingly new type of pollution.

This can also be seen in other countries such as in Bangladesh where research shows that the country manufactured nearly 16,000 tons of hazardous plastic waste during the country’s first month in lockdown. Meanwhile, Thailand Environment Institute’s research suggests that Bangkok alone has used almost 62% plastic in April than it did throughout the entirety of 2019. Littered PPEs have also been a problem in America. As stated by the oceans campaign director for Greenpeace USA, John Hocevar, “it can be found wherever people are,” while pointing out the possibility of the wastes ending up on the drains or the ocean. 

The effects of plastic use are extremely vast judging from the numbers released by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). About 13 million tons of plastic leaks into our planet annually and, as humanity continuously overwhelms our waters even more during this crisis, the number is not expected to undergo a significant decrease.

On the contrary, we are now waking up to a clearer skyline as there has been a drastic drop in our air pollution levels. An image released by a satellite from NASA  indicated a significant improvement in the air quality in China, the epicenter of COVID-19. Megacities like Bangkok, São Paulo, and Bogotá where stricter restrictions have been enforced conjured a brighter and fresher atmosphere for its people. Even the world’s most polluted city, Delhi, was also noted for the disappearance of the menacing and toxic air which burdens its citizens for years.

However, the world is truly ruled by balance. We cannot expect either eternal relief and comfort or eternal anguish. While our skies are apparently getting clearer, our once pristine waters aren’t crystal clear anymore. We have always thought that we are at the top of the spectrum, but the truth is, we are part of the circle of biodiversity and we should all exist equally. This struggle might just be a matter of “how much is too much?”. 

Humanity is now down to its knees and this virus caught us up by our throats – and indeed this is the hardest time to breathe. We are now paying the consequences of our misdeeds and trust me, the upcoming generations will pay double the price if initiatives to attend to these problems are not done earlier. That’s right, the time to act is not merely now, it should’ve been earlier. No one wants a future where we wade through used plastics during our summer trips and some animals that we love today will only be found in books. In the looming future. The world needs spirited youth – the world needs you. 

So far, major strides have been made by young people through launching initiatives, converting to a sustainable lifestyle, and raising awareness. However, we must never forget that this pandemic will only aggravate due to our negligence in environmental action. That’s why conserving nature, supporting renewable energy, and adopting environmentally-friendly practices should be part of the new norm. Let us challenge the traditional and never settle as long as climate and environmental injustice is still prevalent. 

While social distancing will still likely be practiced over the next few months, we must stay vigilant because the continuous production of billions of plastics globally still poses a threat to the planet. The uprising use of disposables must be regulated and should only be limited during the pandemic period to serve as an extra layer of protection – it should not trample upon the hard-earned success towards the mitigation of plastic pollution. Likewise, global leaders should learn from this crisis and should be willing to invest more in technological innovations and the environment like designing recycling systems and developing sustainable communities.

We rely on nature for survival and we must deem these safe spaces as a legacy to the next generation. Glaciers are melting, islands are sinking, and animals and their habitats are dying. It is a race against time and environmental change moves fast. But with the synergies and the collective efforts of everyone, we can heal together and win this race. Because this race is for your future – our future. The world is decelerating and climate injustice is true.

The world needs spirited youth – the world needs you.

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A significant drop in air pollution over China captured from NASA’s Earth Observatory pollution satellites. Photo: NASA

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Retrieved “Covid waste”

Photo: Opération Mer Propre

AUGUST 9, 2020