How has COVID-19 impacted our oceans? 

In the first few weeks after the coronavirus outbreak was declared a pandemic, one of the first questions that seemed to envelope the world was perhaps the most obvious – what would the world look like after coronavirus? 

There’s a lot of uncertainties, both then and now, though you may recall some hints of optimism in the beginning, especially where the environment was concerned. 

One marvelous estimate came from UNCTAD, which said that coronavirus lockdowns around the globe have led to a dramatic 5 percent drop in greenhouse gas emissions. With air pollution being such a problem in many parts of the world and the climate crisis a huge detriment to our collective future, one may be sighing *just a little* breath of relief there. 

Well, it might be wise to hold our horses, though, for we can’t forget the tidal wave of COVID-19 waste filling up our streets, beaches and ocean. 

With most of us (hopefully) staying at home and doing our part to curb transmissions, are we perhaps finding ourselves ordering in food more than ever? Those take-outs, as yummy and joyful as they are, evidently led to more plastic waste. Such was the case in Singapore, which reportedly discarded an additional 1,470 tons of plastic waste from takeout packaging and food delivery alone during its eight-week lockdown that eased on June 1. 

“Our new, unprecedented hyper-hygienic lifestyles don’t exactly bode well for our planet”

But that’s not all there is to it, either; think about the disposable face masks, the gloves, those hand sanitizer bottles, and even protective medical suits (PPE). Our new, unprecedented hyper-hygienic lifestyles don’t exactly bode well for our planet, given how it may reverse the momentum we’ve been having to cut down on single-use plastic. After all, in the middle of a global health crisis where it often feels like it comes down to us individuals, too – we’ve really got our hands full. 

And yet… seven months into the pandemic, is it perhaps due time to start considering how our actions – even as we’re homebound – are impacting our planet? 

“the monthly estimated use of 129 billion face masks in the world right now is on pace to cover the entire landmass of Switzerland”

Let’s focus our attention on our precious oceans, where eight million (!!!) metric tons of plastic ends up every year, pre-COVID-19. That sounds like a big number for most of us, but may be a little hard to imagine. Get this – the amount equates to about one garbage truck’s worth of plastic being dumped into our oceans… every minute. 

Plastic pollution is no joke, so much so that scientists have projected the possibility of more plastic by weight than fish in the oceans by 2050. You’ve probably seen those harrowing pictures of plastic in the bodies of dead seabirds and fishes, perhaps even engaged in the discussions surrounding the relationship between human health problems and consumption of fish containing microplastics. 

Again, that was pre-COVID-19. The pandemic has triggered a widespread use of face masks and gloves globally, that it has rightly raised concerns on environmental contamination. FYI, the monthly estimated use of 129 billion face masks in the world right now is on pace to cover the entire landmass of Switzerland.

“make more eco-friendly choices for our takeouts and deliveries or disposing single-use face masks correctly”

It’s hard not to feel like you’re a little detached from the world, especially while in quarantine. While the way the pandemic forced us away from so many of our loved ones and routines may have left us feeling a little disconnected, it’s also a big reminder of just how connected we all are. The simple act of wearing masks, as the world has seen, has such impact in driving down infection rates. 

That is to say that what we learn and what we do about that knowledge counts, and the same goes to protecting our oceans. With what we’ve learned now, it might be as small as considering if we can make more eco-friendly choices for our takeouts and deliveries or disposing single-use face masks correctly. Though of course, we can’t forget that it really boils down to demanding systemic changes – from better trade policies to improving recycling and real commitments to sustainable practices – from both businesses and policymakers. 

As it is, the urgency to save the oceans may have been accelerated by the pandemic, but as things screech to a halt in the wake of the virus – perhaps it’s also an opportunity for fundamental changes that will definitely save our oceans. We don’t yet know what the world would exactly look like after the coronavirus, but it doesn’t mean we just have to sit around and wait. 

Sources:

https://unctad.org/news/covid-19-stalls-progress-global-goals

https://www.todayonline.com/singapore/singapore-households-generated-additional-1334-tonnes-plastic-waste-during-circuit-breaker

https://www.iucn.org/resources/issues-briefs/marine-plastics#issue

https://pubs.acs.org/doi/pdf/10.1021/acs.est.0c02178



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