Concerns as face masks, gloves, sanitizer bottles litter seas, oceans

Pamela Coke-Hamilton

The consequences of the COVID-19 preventive measures are beginning to take a toll, as the United Nations revealed that wastes from plastic face masks, gloves and hand sanitizer bottles have worsened the plastic litter in seas and oceans.

The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), said: “Historical data tell us that about 75 per cent of coronavirus plastic will likely become waste clogging our landfills and floating in our seas. And the costs are staggering.”

It noted that notwithstanding that coronavirus lockdowns around the globe led to a dramatic five per cent drop in greenhouse gas emissions, not all measures to contain the pandemic have had a positive impact on the environment.


UNCTAD’s Director of International Trade, Pamela Coke-Hamilton, said: “Our streets, beaches and ocean have been hit by a tidal wave of COVID-19 wastes, including plastic face masks, gloves, hand sanitizer bottles, and food packaging.

“Plastic pollution was already one of the greatest threats to our planet before the coronavirus outbreak. The sudden boom in the daily use of certain products to keep people safe and stop the disease is making things much worse.”

The negative spillover effects of plastic waste on fisheries, tourism and maritime transport, for example; add up to an estimated $40 billion each year, according to the UN Environment Programme (UNEP).

Coke-Hamilton advised that trade policy’s role should not be overlooked. She said: “Plastic production and consumption are a global system that has lots of trade dimensions. But the important role that global trade policies could play in the fight against plastic pollution has not garnered the attention it deserves,”

She noted that the number of trade measures mentioning plastics such as technical regulations, subsidies, licences and bans reported to the World Trade Organisation (WTO), has increased annually by 28% over the past decade, showing growing concern among members.

“But the way countries have been using trade policy to fight plastic pollution has mostly been uncoordinated, which limits the effectiveness of their efforts. There are limits to what any country can achieve on its own,” Coke-Hamilton said.

She said the 164 developing and developed economies that make up the WTO have the ability to write multilateral trade rules that could more effectively address the fundamental issues of the global plastics economy.
Less pollution, more jobs

Besides, regulating the production and consumption of plastics, UNCTAD urges governments and businesses to identify non-fossil fuel plastic substitutes.

The list of non-toxic, biodegradable or easily recyclable materials that could replace plastic includes many well-known materials, such as glass, ceramics, natural fibres, paper, cardboard, rice husk, natural rubber and animal proteins.

As developing countries are key suppliers of many plastic substitutes, increased global demand could create new, greener trade and investment opportunities for them, she urged.

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