Environmentalists fear that during the coronavirus pandemic, we might be facing a new massive wave of pollution of oceans. The 194 billion PPE pieces used monthly represent a new major threat to our waters.
During a pandemic, do we cause another one right away? The pandemic seems to have another, even more terrifying effect, due to the discarded millions of pieces of discarded personal protective equipment (PPE) in the environment.
This spring, the numerous stories of nature reviving during the global lockdown have brought us all hope. It appeared that even though the world was going in the direction of no return, at least nature was finally being given a major breather.
Unfortunately, nature is not healing! Namely, the millions of pieces of discarded personal protective equipment (PPE) are littering the planet in shocking ways.
A recent study published in the Environment, Science & Technology journal showed that every month, around the world, over 129 billion face masks and 65 billion gloves are being used, leading to “widespread environmental contamination” and a disastrous new wave of waste material in the oceans and rivers.
Although wearing PPE is often essential, remember to take care when throwing away used items. Not only are they hazardous to other people, it’s all too easy for discarded masks and gloves to end up in watercourses.
Find a bin, do it properly.#Loveyourriver #PPE #coronavirus pic.twitter.com/QWCXSuWtNp
— Wessex Rivers Trust (@WessexRivers) August 7, 2020
Earlier this year, watchdogs with WWF (World Wildlife Fund) issued a report that warned that in case “ only 1 percent of the masks were to be disposed of incorrectly and dispersed in nature”, this would lead to “ up to 10 million masks per month polluting the environment.”
Emily Stevenson, known as the “Beach Guardian,” a marine biologist from the UK, recently went to collect litter from a beach in Cornwall.
In only an hour, she found 171 pieces of discarded PPE, which is shockingly more than the six items she had found on a previous beach cleanup.
171 discarded face masks and gloves found on Cornish coastline in one hour pic.twitter.com/mUqUvvMHZP
— The Independent (@Independent) August 6, 2020
Back in 2017, Emily and her father Rob founded The Beach Guardian project, which has organized 200 community cleanups involving 6,000 volunteers.
However, recently, she started noticing that the litter they are collecting has shifted from single-use plastic bags and straws to gloves and protective face masks.
“We’ve already found evidence of PPE actually sinking below the ocean surface. This means that there could be a totally unaccounted for the concentration of PPE pollution on the seafloor, which can remain as dormant debris for centuries.”
Once on the seafloor, it smothers any biological structures such as important Sea Fan beds in the UK, or coral reefs further afield. Also, this debris entails a ‘plasticizing’ effect when on the seafloor – potentially inhibiting gas exchange between the water column and sediment.”
Stevenson estimates that if the entire UK wears one disposable protective face mask daily for a year, this would lead to an extra 57,000 tons of plastic that would be difficult to recycle, as well an additional 66,000 tons of contaminated PPE trash.
“This has been the first time I have been legitimately frightened by PPE pollution. To see it in the water, in the environment that holds my heart and my passion. To see it at home, on my doorstep. It hit me very hard.”
1️⃣5️⃣2️⃣ plastic gloves and face masks found during today’s #LitterPick…
— Beach Guardian (@PlasticWaive) August 6, 2020
Experts and conservationists warned about the devastating effects of plastic waste on the oceans and water supplies well before the pandemic.
They leach carcinogenic toxins and chemicals into the marine environment, and marine wildlife suffers and is being killed by the discarded plastic drink containers.
The UN reported that an estimated 100 million tons of plastic could be found in the oceans, mainly originating from land-based sources.
The report for the 2016 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, warned plastic waste in the ocean would outweigh all fish by 2050.
Yet, Stevenson hopes that the pandemic will teach us all to become more aware of the proper way to discard their personal protective equipment and address this problem:
“The saving grace of COVID-19 has been our unity; the whole world has faced the virus together. If we continue with the same global collaboration, we can resolve this. PPE is in all of our lives; we use it or see it every day. But it is for this very reason that we can all do something about it.
It is those daily, individual, small steps that happen on a global scale that is going to be our greatest ally in this fight against plastic.”