A sea of pollution: New widespread contamination in oceans amid coronavirus pandemic

“If only one percent of the masks were to be disposed of incorrectly and dispersed in nature, this would result in up to 10 million masks per month polluting the environment.”

Image Credit: Getty Images

With more than 129 billion face masks and 65 billion gloves being used monthly, the world is now faced with a new widespread contamination in oceans and waterways, and on beaches. Single-use personal protective equipment (PPE) pollution is the cause of a new problem for marine life.

Single-use masks and gloves due to the COVID-19 pandemic are entering the world’s waters and “adding to the already immense and still ever-growing problem of ocean pollution,” according to Plastic Oceans International, a nonprofit organization raising awareness about plastic pollution. Now environmentalists and conservation groups are “sounding the alarm” over new coronavirus waste in the fight to keep the oceans and waterways clean worldwide.

“Plastic pollution is already a huge problem in our oceans—all of our water bodies in fact—and it’s not something that is notional for the future,” Mike Alcalde, a documentary filmmaker and expert from the México Natural Organization, said. “It is here now, doing huge amounts of damage. It’s ironic that in dealing with the coronavirus crisis we are stacking up difficulties for another one in parallel.”

And single-use PPE pollution is adding to the already growing plastic pollution problem the world is faced, Plastic Oceans International said. An estimated 8 million metric tons of plastic flow through our oceans every year, according to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and with most of PPE being incorrectly discarded, an extra 57,000 tons of plastic could potentially be added to this in a single year.

“If only one percent of the masks were to be disposed of incorrectly and dispersed in nature, this would result in up to 10 million masks per month polluting the environment,” the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) said.

The plastic-based PPE are just like other plastic items such as plastic bags, fishing line, drinking straws and plastic bottles. They take hundreds of years to break-down and once they start to decompose into “tiny fragments called secondary microplastics, they contain chemicals and pollutants that can also harm wildlife,” according to Plastic Oceans International.

“When we talk about medical disposal in the environment during COVID-19, we tend to think about latex and vinyl gloves, which are not different to a plastic bag,” Gerardo Peña, a marine biologist with Ninth Wave Global, said. “We also have masks which, due the great variety and amount, are almost impossible to assess in terms of direct damage on the environment. The polymeric, plastic-based masks will last decades before nature can find a way to get rid of them.”


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