Op-ed by By Yvan Bourgnon, Navigator, President-Founder of The SeaCleaners
Why are we burying our heads in the sand ? Before being the beginning of a new era announced everywhere, the Covid-19 pandemic is for the moment, in terms of waste, an ecological disaster. Of the billions of surgical masks and other disposable gloves used worldwide, huge quantities end their lives on the ground and in the ocean. A catastrophe for marine life. Remember that, made up largely of polypropylene, therefore of plastic, the masks alone take 450 years to decompose. This pandemic-related litter are added onto the sad score of 15 to 20 tonnes of plastic waste that is dumped into the ocean every minute.
In this « new world », where everyone wants to see real environmental awareness and public policies to match, the plastic and packaging lobbies are rubbing their hands. Their all-out hygienic outbidding is the perfect opportunity for them to restore their image by imposing this very convenient amalgam: single-use plastic = hygiene = optimal safety to protect caregivers, consumers and food. This is a pernicious way of indirectly discrediting citizens’ initiatives for reusable protection, made of fabric for example. To undermine awareness campaigns aimed at populations, and worse still, to sink all the measures taken by governments around the world to reduce the use of single-use plastics, such as cotton buds, straws and other plastic cutlery. These are all everyday items that have nothing to do with Covid-19.
These maneuvers at the highest level are exerted in a thousand ways. In France, for example, there are calls for a moratorium on environmental provisions related to the law on the fight against waste and the circular economy, enacted in February. The same is true at the European level, where a request for a postponement has been made concerning the ban on certain single-use plastics on the grounds that « plastic products help to combat Covid-19 ». American lobbies, for their part, have no hesitation in asserting that banning plastics puts « consumers and workers at risk ».
This new « post-first wave » threat of Covid-19 comes on top of all the other threats to the ocean we already know about: overfishing, acidification, marine heat waves, dead zones, heavy metal discharges, pesticides, urban wastewater, tanker degassing, underwater mining, etc. Victims of plastic pollution, here a whale is found dead with a 100 kg ball of garbage in its stomach, there 85% of sea turtles have ingested plastic waste and plastic fragments have been found in 90% of the world’s seabirds! As for the consequences for human health, while we do not yet know the extent to which the plastic microparticles ingested by fish have an effect on human health, their translocation has already been observed in the lungs and digestive system. All these observations remind us more than ever how vital it is to preserve this ocean, which, let us not forget, covers 70% of our planet.
Much more than the preservation of seabirds, turtles and whales, to which some would like to confine this fight, it is quite simply the survival of human kind that is at stake. Because the ocean helps to regulate the climate on a global scale by absorbing almost a third of anthropogenic CO2 emissions. Its many marine molecules reveal their potential every day in terms of medical applications, particularly in the fight against certain cancers… in short, as we can see, the list would be too long if we were to be exhaustive and enumerate all the benefits that the ocean gives us back.
So what do we do?
To think conveniently that only big state measures matter or to think that every little bit is important when there are 7 billion of us doing it? It doesn’t mean there is something antinomic about it, quite the contrary. Today, action must be taken on all fronts. All studies show that waste collection, where it is, is a strategic issue to start reversing the trend. Because the slightest gesture, like the most spectacular, is an act of resistance against those who, even in the « new world », continue to want to submit human kind and nature to the law of the strongest and the tyranny of business.
In other words? Picking up a lollipop stick or collecting rubbish on a large scale, same fight. Especially when, all over the world, the collection of household waste is idling, as a consequence of the confinement, with the effect of letting the rains carry gloves and other masks to the bottom of the ocean… in short, when we know that in Bangkok, Thailand, the volume of this plastic waste increased by 62% in April 2020, we say that this fight is not only topical but, like the fight against the Covid-19, of a global order.
Like so many others, I was astonished to see these images of rubbish defiling the forest of Fontainebleau, the banks of the Seine, the gutters of the major Western capitals. In all these countries, where people pride themselves on sorting their waste and protecting the environment, it only took an exceptional period to forget our great principles and multiply unprincipled behaviour, proof that everywhere, the work of education is far from over.
Collecting plastic waste on a large scale, where the density of waste is highest, such as at the mouths of rivers, is more than a priority. But it is also, as of today, to raise awareness, train and help to legislate for better prevention at all levels. Because if there is one truth that concerns us and brings us all together, it is this: we need the ocean as much as the ocean needs us. So this is not the time to give up, but rather to roll up our sleeves! Neither resignation nor despair: it is up to all of us to act. Let’s take advantage of World Oceans Day to send this message: though it is late, everything is still possible.