Covid-19 medical waste: Indonesia can do more to stem microplastics flowing into ocean

As Covid-19 is becoming endemic and the world has learned to live with it, many governments, including Indonesia’s, have mandated the use of masks in certain situations and hospitals are still struggling with the various waves of variants.  As a result, the demand for disposable masks and personal protective equipment (PPE) has remained high.  While it is good to use masks and PPE, governments have to grapple with the enormous amount of medical waste.

Disposable masks and PPE are made of polypropylene, a kind of plastic which takes hundreds of years to decompose.  Indonesia’s National Research and Innovation Agency (BRIN) reported that since the start of Covid-19, because of improper disposal of masks and PPE, there was an increase in microplastics, found in Jakarta Bay.

The majority of the Bay’s coastal communities consist of people living below the poverty line and in conditions of poor sanitation.  The proliferation of microplastics, which are harmful to humans, marine and animal species and the environment, has exacerbated their dire conditions.

“The abundance of microplastics was found in the range of 4.29 to 23.49 microplastic particles per 1,000 liters of river water with an average of 9.02 particles per 1,000 liters of river water moving towards Jakarta Bay waters,” said M. Reza Cordova, researcher at the BRIN Oceanographic Research Center.

The proportion of microplastic waste increased 10 times in December 2020, compared to the previous three percent at any time before the discovery of the first Covid-19 case in Indonesia.  According to research by BRIN, Open University, University of North Sumatra, IPB University and the University of Portsmouth, a significant increase in microplastics occurred during high rainfall.

Research has shown that there is more microplastics found in the east coast of Jakarta Bay compared to the west coast. Of the nine river estuaries studied, microplastics are found in Bogor, Depok, Tangerang and Bekasi (Jabodetabek).

According to Reza, the highest amount of microplastics was found in the rainy season with an average of 9.02 particles per 1,000 liters of river water, while the lowest was found in the dry season at 8.01 particles per 1,000 liters of river water.

Data from the Central Statistics Agency (BPS) in 2021 showed that Indonesia’s plastic waste reached 66 million tons per year. A study by the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI) in 2018 estimated that around 0.26 million to 0.59 million tons of plastic waste flowed into the sea.   

Reza said that 81 percent of people always wear masks when they leave the house, however, a large number of people will indiscriminately throw away the used masks, and with more medical waste stemming from Covid-19, more plastic waste is expected to find its way to the ocean, threatening the balance of the ecosystem.  Reza also warned that the plastic waste might be contaminated with viruses and bacteria. 

Masks containing microplastics have a bad impact on the balance of the ecosystem. Microplastics can cause colonization of pathogenic microbes and can cause air, air, and soil pollution.

In addition to pollution, microplastics can also cause a decrease in the physiological function of zooplankton and fish in rivers which can reduce their population. With a very small amount, microplastics can be easily absorbed by the human body, and negatively interfere with the endocrine and immune systems.

Reza hoped the government would take the lead in actively promote public understanding of the correct way of disposing single-use plastic such as disposable masks and PPE.  Time is running out before the medical waste problem turns into a full-blown environmental crisis.

Photo credit: iStock/RECSTOCKFOOTAGE

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