Earth Day, observed every year on April 22, marks the anniversary of the birth of the modern environmental movement in 1970. This year’s Earth Day is unlike that of the previous years. While tiding over Covid-19 is a great challenge, the pandemic, in a way, has taught lessons on the need to maintain a healthy earth to support our lives and livelihoods. A healthy planet is not an option — it is a necessity.
The theme of this year’s Earth Day — Restore our Earth — reminds us to focus on natural processes, emerging green technologies, and innovative thinking to restore the world’s ecosystems not just because we care about the natural world, but because we live on it.
Here are two environmental emergencies linked to the pandemic, which call for immediate attention:
Covid-induced plastic pollution
Plastic pollution is not a recent phenomenon. But plastic pollution has exacerbated as a result of the pandemic. While PPEs, masks, gloves and face shields offer important protection from the virus, the improper disposal of single-use plastic PPEs and masks has been littering our cities and waterbodies.
As per a global study conducted by Teale Phelps Bondaroff and Sam Cooke of OceansAsia, 4,680 to 6,240 metric tonnes of plastic in the form of masks entered our oceans in 2020. Single-use face masks are made from a variety of non-woven materials, spunbond and meltblown spunbond plastics such as polypropylene and are difficult to recycle due to their composition and risk of contamination and infection. These masks in the marine environment serve as a source of microplastics.
These microplastics not just negatively impact ecosystems even in remote beaches like the Adaman and Nicobar Archipelago but also marine life. It is possible that masks, or portions of masks, are consumed by marine wildlife as they mistake it for food. A UN report found that over 800 species are negatively impacted by marine plastic pollution.
This apart, the design of face masks, and particularly ear loops, makes them a possible entanglement risk for wildlife.
In addition to this, hygiene concerns and greater reliance on take-away food options as a result of lockdowns, quarantine, physical distancing and other regulations, has invariably led to increased use of plastics, particularly plastic packaging. This is apart from the greenhouse gases and other pollutants resulting from the manufacturing and transportation of these products.
What can we do?
Use reusable face masks as far as possible or consider biodegradable options.
Discard masks responsibly.
Snip the ear straps of the masks before disposal.
Government can encourage companies to go in for sustainable packaging material.
Policies must be framed to change individual behaviour and consumption practices to reduce the use of single-use plastic.
Covid-19 and climate
Some saw a silver lining in the environmental benefits of last year’s nationwide lockdowns to prevent the spread of coronavirus — a decrease in daily greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution and the recovery of habitats. But all those were temporary. Across the world, natural disasters are complicating our recovery and relief efforts. Flattening the Covid-19 curve seems only a prelude to the upward movement of the climate curve.
Deforestation and climate change increase the likelihood of both zoonotic and vector-borne diseases because as the earth warms and seasons shift, some species move from their habitats while others breed earlier in the year. Our lifestyle, food habits and increased carbon footprint add to the problem.
But the other part of this is habitat destruction. As humans encroach and destroy habitats, they come in close contact with wildlife and all the diseases they carry. Studies show that most recent epidemics originated from two sources: industrialised animal farming operations and deforestation.
(Compiled by Divyashri Mudakavi)