Covid's ocean wake-up call

Covid's ocean wake-up call

Today is World Oceans Day, although judging from the state our marine environment finds itself in, it is more of a nod to its state of perdition than a celebration of mankind's enduring relationship with the Seven Seas.

Now in its 12th year, this year's trailer has been the news of a fire aboard the X-Press Pearl, a Singapore-registered container vessel loaded with petrochemical products, oil, lubricants and, above all, plastic pallets -- the raw materials for producing plastic shopping bags -- which took place near the port of Colombo in Sri Lanka.

The blaze was caused by a nitric acid leak on May 20, leading to much of the vessel's toxic cargo being released into the surrounding waters, although experts fear the oil and colossal number of pallets could reach shores as far flung as Somalia, India and Indonesia, having already washed up on the pristine beaches of Negombo, a resort town near Colombo. This is made all the more worrying by the detrimental impact on human health that we now know micro and nano plastic fibres can have when they enter the food chain as unwelcome ingredients of the seafood dishes we consume.

On the domestic front, the quarantine-inspired human exodus 18 months ago from many of our beach and seaside towns appears to have afforded the turtles and dugongs of those previously imperilled ecosystems a certain amount of respite following a glut of reports of deaths and injuries among many species caused by heavy pollution.

The recovery may be short-lived as Covid seems poised to leave no pebble unturned in its path of destruction as marine debris has begun to bounce back in the guise of medical waste, with face masks just the tip of a marine iceberg of rubbish that also includes a drastic rise in poorly disposed of plastic food packing used to ferry meals to the millions who relied on takeaways during the many lockdowns we have all had to endure.

Although the scale of the damage has yet to be fully quantified, data released by the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA) in April was cause enough to sound alarm bells. According to City Hall, during the first two weeks of April, face masks alone accounted for almost 13 tonnes of rubbish each day.

It remains unknown what steps authorities are taking to deal with this problem. Used face masks are not the usual bounty of interest to rubbish scavengers and recycling companies. Classified as "hazardous waste", they require specific and costly disposal technology. In fact, there are only 25 companies in the whole of Thailand with the capacity to process this kind of toxic and potentially infectious waste and only 10 local administrative bodies have medical waste incinerators.

The BMA has, so far, arranged 1,000 special sites for the public to discard used facemasks, with Governor Aswin Kwanmuang vaguely stating that they would be incinerated somewhere without elaborating further.

As the government rolls out its vaccine programme and pumps 1.5 trillion baht in borrowed money into the economy, it would do well to remember the debt of gratitude Thailand owes its famed marine environment and also get a head start in "vaccinating" seaside areas against further damage before the tourist floodgates swing wide open once more.


Bangkok Post editorial column

These editorials represent Bangkok Post thoughts about current issues and situations.

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