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Face mask PPE is everywhere now — including the ocean

Face mask PPE is everywhere now — including the ocean
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Face masks are everywhere now. In many ways, this is good news: As vaccine rollout continues, wearing a mask is still the best way to stay safe and help prevent the spread of COVID-19 in our communities. But the prevalence of personal protective equipment (PPE) has also become a double-edged sword. 

Ocean Conservancy recently released a report showing that in the second half of 2020 alone, our global network of International Coastal Cleanup partners and volunteers collected 107,219 items of PPE from beaches and waterways around the world. This figure is likely just a drop in the proverbial bucket. Because of the pandemic, volunteer turnout was significantly lower than usual, and we know from surveying volunteers and coordinators that not all were able to record PPE data. At the same time, 94 percent of surveyed participants reported observing PPE pollution at a cleanup in 2020.

Personal protective equipment is a critical public health tool, and it’s going to be with us for the foreseeable future. Unfortunately, the rise in PPE waste comes at a time when plastic waste from takeout and delivery food ware is also increasing. And we know that this, too, is ending up in our waterways. In fact, even prior to the pandemic, plastic items like food wrappers, takeout containers, straws and more have regularly been among the top 10 most commonly collected items during Ocean Conservancy’s annual cleanup efforts.

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Simply put, plastic pollution is ballooning, and our waste management systems can’t keep up, with the environment — and the ocean in particular — bearing the costs. To tackle the PPE waste problem, we must tackle how we manage all plastic waste, at every level.

First, we must reduce the amount of plastic waste being produced. Phasing out certain single-use plastics, particularly those that are difficult or impossible to recycle and that frequently appear on beaches and waterways (including plastic bags, foam food and beverage containers, and straws), will go a long way to easing the burden on our waste and recycling infrastructure. 

Those single-use plastic items that can’t be easily phased out must be designed and produced in a way that is conducive to actually being recycled. Our patchwork system of recycling regulations means that many products that appear to be recyclable are, in fact, not. By mandating recycled content standards we can increase the demand for recycled plastics and provide an incentive to manufacturers to make items that are actually recyclable — and recycled — here in the United States. 

We must also hold companies that make plastics and plastic products accountable for helping manage all the waste created by their products — a concept known as “extended producer responsibility,” or EPR. Ocean Conservancy analysis showed that EPR is one of the most effective policy tools to meet the challenge of improving waste management, securing durable funding for recycling systems and moving toward a “circular economy” where plastics and other materials are reused again and again rather than ending up in a landfill. 

The good news is momentum is growing to tackle this issue here in the United States. A coalition of states recently came together to push EPR policies for plastic packaging at the state level. At the federal level, Sen. Jeff MerkleyJeff MerkleySenate panel deadlocks in vote on sweeping elections bill Senate descends into hours-long fight over elections bill Senate poised for all-day brawl over sweeping elections bill MORE (D-Ore.) and Rep. Alan LowenthalAlan Stuart LowenthalFace mask PPE is everywhere now — including the ocean Native Americans urge Deb Haaland to help tackle pollution in communities of color Bipartisan bill seeks to raise fees for public lands drilling MORE (D-Calif.) have recently re-introduced their Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act. Among other provisions, this comprehensive bill would mandate EPR, establish recycled content standards, and ban certain single-use plastic items nationally.

By changing the way we produce, manage and dispose of all single-use plastics, we can help reduce the prevalence of PPE pollution in the environment. Doing so isn’t just a matter of public health. It’s a matter of ocean health as well.

George Leonard is the chief scientist at Ocean Conservancy. Follow him on Twitter: @GeorgeHLeonard.