Masks. Dozens and dozens of disposable masks.
On that overcast morning in late February, just weeks after Hong Kong had recorded its first coronavirus case, the environmental activist collected more than 70 discarded masks from a beach slightly longer than a football field. In the months since, Stokes has found many more washed up onto other islands far from central Hong Kong.
The coronavirus pandemic has brought a dramatic increase in the use of plastic, the main component in masks, gloves, hand sanitizer bottles, protective medical suits, test kits, takeout containers, delivery packaging and other items central to our new, locked-down, hyper-hygienic way of life.
The disposal of such items is yet another troubling consequence of a crisis that has devastated economies and wracked healthcare systems. Environmental groups warn that all that material — though potentially life-saving — could overwhelm cities around the world where waste collection and recycling strategies have been short-circuited by lockdowns.
The deeper worry is that COVID-19 will reverse the momentum of a years-long global battle to cut down on single-use plastic.
“I understand people are afraid because they don’t know what’s going on with this virus, but it’s just a major setback” for environmental protection, said Stokes, cofounder of Oceans Asia, an advocacy group. “It’s almost just an excuse for going back and using plastic on everything.”
A glut of new, throwaway plastic is apparent worldwide, from California, where Gov. Gavin Newsom temporarily lifted a ban on single-use grocery bags over concerns the virus could be transmitted via reusable bags, to Asian cities that struggled to manage their trash even before the pandemic.
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