Discarded Masks Are Trashing The World’s Oceans And Beaches

A new report revealed that used masks and other items that have been worn in order to protect one’s self during the COVID-19 pandemic have started to affect conservation and the environment of beaches around the world.

On Wednesday, New Jersey’s Clean Ocean Action environmental group released its yearly report about its “Beach Sweeps,” revealing that 2020 displayed a new kind of litter problem: personal protective equipment.

In 2020, the group added PPE to their data card in the fall after the spring sweep was cancelled due to the pandemic.

The group discussed the increase in PPE in its report, saying:

Amidst the global COVID-19 public health crisis, the world is facing an environmental health risk caused by littering of personal protective equipment (PPE). NJ towns and municipalities are witnessing increased dumping and littering of used masks and disposable gloves. All litter eventually finds its way to the ocean and will end-up as marine debris. As a result, COA added PPE to the Fall 2020 Data Card. In total 1,113 pieces of PPE were collected at the Fall 2020 Beach Sweeps.

The Associated Press reported that in the later half of 2020, over 107,000 pieces of PPE were picked up by volunteers all over the world, according to the Ocean Conservancy group. The members of the group reportedly believe that the true number for the year is much higher.

“Used correctly PPE saves lives; disposed of incorrectly it kills marine life,” said Cindy Zipf, Clean Ocean Action’s executive director. “PPE litter is a gross result of the pandemic, and 100% avoidable. Use PPE properly, then dispose of it properly in a trash can. It’s not hard and it’s the least we can do for this marvel of a planet we all live on, not to mention ourselves.”

Nicholas Mallos is the senior director of the Ocean Conservancy’s Trash Free Seas program. He said, “Once in the environment, disposable PPE act like any other single-use plastic, likely never breaking down but rather breaking up into smaller and smaller pieces and persisting indefinitely … In fact, a recent study found that a single disposable mask can shed up to 173,000 microfibers — tiny plastic fibers — in a single day.”

“What this means is that the damage is cumulative, adding up over time to the massive amount of plastics already entering our ocean each year,” he said. “PPE has been vital in protecting human health, but the resulting pollution has also exposed that our waste systems are not equipped to handle crises like this.”

The Associated Press reported that Northern California has seen an uptick in thrown-out PPE items on beaches in and nearby the city of Pacifica, as seen by the Pacific Beach Coalition, and a “clean-up day in San Diego netted 413 latex gloves and more than 700 single-use surgical masks.”

The issue has started to become a problem around the globe, as well. In Scotland, such items were discovered on almost 25% of the beaches that the Marine Conservation Society cleaned last fall. Masks were found on beaches in Hong Kong as early as March of last year when the pandemic was beginning to take hold.

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