KAMPALA — All of the defining images of the coronavirus pandemic seem to feature one thing: plastic.
Face shields and masks, gloves, protective equipment, sanitizer bottles — the Covid-19 crisis has spurred a rapid expansion in the production of desperately-needed plastic products —with governments racing to boost their stockpiles.
While such production is necessary, all that plastic ends up somewhere — and environmental campaigners fear it is just the tip of a looming iceberg, with the pandemic causing a number of serious challenges to their efforts to reduce plastic pollution.
From people discarding plastic gloves and single use masks littered around streets —to important regulations on the use of plastic being scrapped, rolled back or delayed, the problem has taken a back seat during one of the most significant public health crises of modern times.
Environmentalists fear that implications of those trends could spell years of trouble for already polluted lakes and rivers.
Government has increasingly ordered to wear face coverings in public — once seen as a personal preference with minimal benefit, but now the preferred guidance everywhere.
And while the moves are important from a public health perspective, one immediate impact is clear on streets and in homes.
“Just look at where we are now, all those are discarded masks and they will have an impact,” said,Joseph Katamba, an environmentalist.
On her part, World Wide Fund for Nature’s Ritah Kyategeka fears that single use face masks could become an additional threat to the lakes and rivers which have been choking under the weight of plastic at a rapidly increasing rate.
She gave an example of River Rwizi which is being rehabilitated by WWF from the diverse effects of plastic pollution.
Ms. Kyategeka urged authority to guide the public on single use mask disposal and warned that such poorly disposed off face masks could break down and add to the vast collections of microplastics in rivers and lakes.
She also wants the Ministry of Agriculture to study the risks of used face makes to aquatic life.
Plastics break down into smaller pieces over time, and the longer litter is in the environment, the more it will decompose. Plastics first break down into microplastics and eventually into even smaller nanoplastics. These tiny particles and fibres are often long-lived polymers that can accumulate in food chains. Just one mask can produce millions of particles, each with the potential to also carry chemicals and bacteria up the food chain and potentially even into humans,” environmentalists urge.
A recent study showed that plastic production has quadrupled over the past four decades— with its authors warning that if that trend continues, the making of plastics will make up 15% of greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.