Open Day

By Gilbert Atuga

Currently, COVID-19 is widespread worldwide. In Kenya, the first corona virus case was reported on 12 March 2020. Since then the ministry of health has come up with a raft of measures to curb the virus spread.

The measures include:

  • Wearing a face mask always when in public
  • Use of hand sanitizer
  • Wearing of protective gowns and gloves always by medical personnel when attending to patients.
  • Keeping social distance
  • Stay at home/work from home
Figure 1: Face masks in the environment picture courtesy of OceanAsia.org

The ultimate goal of these measures is for reducing corona virus spread, protect our front line workers, and eventually flatten the curve. However, implementation of these safety measures can lead to unintended consequences. The Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) if not properly disposed of can pollute the environment with profound effects on the blue economy.

The PPE used such as face mask, hand sanitizer, medical protective gowns, gloves are made of or packaged in plastic material. To add the safety products are mostly designed for single-use to minimize virus infection in case of PPE contamination. Additionally, these safety products cannot be recycled due to fear of infection of plastics recyclers by corona virus.The above factors, therefore, call for attention to this unique type of waste.

PPE waste if not properly disposed of ends up in our river streams and ultimately to the ocean (see figure 1). Moreover, littering and illegal dumping add up to the accumulation of plastics in the environment. The problem is exacerbated further by a lack of proper waste management systems in most counties. To add social distancing, and stay at home measure is making garbage collectors shy off from picking garbage in their routine collection from homes. This leads to waste dumped near households away from landfills. This poses environmental and health risks.

COVID-19 plastic waste contribution to Kenya rivers and ocean.

It is projected that by 2050 there will be more plastics in the ocean than fish. UN estimates 13 million tons of plastics are dumped into the ocean each year. And the situation is likely to get worse during and after the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to the 2019 census results,Kenya has a population of 47.6 million. If we assume that 50 % of the population uses disposable masks every single day (taking into account category of professions (i.e. doctors, nurses, etc.)which may use more than one disposable mask in a day, and the population that uses reusable masks). This leads to 23.8 million disposable face masks used every single day. This translates to 714 million face masks in a month.

Figure 2: Turtle ingesting plastic in the Ocean courtesy of Ocean Conservancy

If we assume that only 1 % of face masks are not correctly disposed of. Then 7.14 million masks are likely to end up on land monthly with a bigger percentage ending up on rivers and the ocean, mainly during storm water runoff. If we equate one mask to weigh 4 grams according to the WWF report, this translates to 28.6 thousand kilograms of plastics introduced to nature monthly from face masks alone. This amount of plastics if ends up in our rivers and ultimately to our ocean it poses a big threat to aquatic organisms, and ultimately to the Blue economy. Furthermore, it undoes the benefits gained since the September 2017 plastic bag ban in Kenya, and the recent ban on the use of plastic bottles in marine parks.It is with this in mind that PPE waste should be recognized as an emerging problem amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.

Impacts of plastics to the aquatic environment and human.

Plastic pollution has adverse effects on the aquatic environment. They may accidentally be ingested leading to the death of aquatic organisms (figure 2). Plastic may also lead to entanglement of aquatic organisms' leading to death. This litter also leads to degradation of critical habitats such as mangroves, and coral reefs which act as a breeding ground for fish, hence affect the fisheries sector. Plastics may also lead to loss of aesthetic value in our beaches and water bodies hence less attractive to tourists. PPE, when littered on land, may end up clogging roadside drainage leading to flooding mainly during rainy season. Plastic also can get into ship propellers during navigation leading to ship damage, hence the need for constant repairs with great economic losses.

Research has shown that used PPE may pose a health risk to humans as the SARS-Cov-2 (Corona virus) is more stable on plastics i.e. detected up to 72 hours after contamination on these surfaces. These calls for a change of strategy in the collection of plastic waste, as it will have a greater negative impact on plastic recycle due to Covid-19 contamination fear. Furthermore, no one knows what might happen in case aquatic organisms such as fish ingest contaminated PPE (i.e. will such fish be a health hazard to humans?). Such are the kind of questions researchers will grapple with post-pandemic.

Generally with the new order of life during and post-pandemic the waste quantity and composition on our oceans will change tremendously.

How can we participate in tackling this problem post quarantine?

This calls for Kenya Marine and Fisheries Research Institute (KMFRI) to come up with a strategic road map to address this problem. KMFRI can play a led role in having a long term goal of monitoring plastic pollution in our aquatic systems. Through this baseline data can be gathered to advise policy. To add, monitoring will enable us to assess if any intervention measures put in place are working or not. Monitoring can also give insight into what extent have COVID-19 PPE spread, and if they have already reached our rivers and oceans to impact on aquatic organisms.

Use of mobile technology to monitor plastic pollution to inform policy

Currently, in KMFRI a mobile app for plastics data collection has been developed (see mobile app screen shorts below). The development of this innovation has been achieved through KMFRI and the University of Antwerp citizen science collaborative project on plastics monitoring in Kenya using mobile technology, where I am the local promotor of the project.  However, with the Covid-19 pandemic, some modifications are needed on the mobile app to include the Covid-19 type of waste.

For utilization of this app for plastic collection. Standard Operation Protocols (SOPs) for plastic litter samplingis in the process of being developed. Subsequently, volunteers and professions will have to betrained on how to collect data, and record in the mobile app using the developed SOPs. This harmonized approach will enable reproducibility and comparing results from different locations. The initiative will also enable data to be collected on a wider geographical scale to inform policy for target-oriented plastic reduction.

To add, the WHO modeling results suggest that just like HIV, the virus will be endemic. The ministry of health is gearing up with measures for “new normal” if the virus becomes endemic in the population. This “new normal” post quarantine, calls for us as researchers to reinvent our strategy for data collection. One such way is through the utilization of technology (mobile app)which will enable data collection while observing social distancing, as data is very important to inform policy.

Lastly, KMFRI recognizes the vital role Private-Public Partnerships plays. KMFRI is, therefore, open for partnership with other like-minded organizations to come up with solutions to tackle the Coronavirus PPE pollution in this COVID-19 pandemic.

Together let's fight Coronavirus, together lets fight PPE generated waste. And together let us strive to keep our rivers and ocean free from waste.

 In case you need to participate can reach out contact person on email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Figure 3: Screenshots of Mobile app for plastics monitoring, from left is a login platform, and the right side is a platform for a list of plastic items in the app