Discarded face masks and gloves during the coronavirus pandemic has led to a sharp increase in pollution, particularly in coastal areas, environmental groups warn.
Discarded personal protective equipment (PPE) has been on the rise on beaches, according to the Pacific Beach Coalition, which conducts cleanups near Pacifica, Calif., according to The Associated Press.
This is a marked difference from the past 25 years, when the group said the most common litter was cigarette butts and food wrappers.
“What are we going to do? We got masks. We got gloves. We got all those hand wipes, the sani wipes. They’re everywhere. They’re in my neighborhood, in my streets. What can we do?” Lynn Adams, the coalition's president, told the AP.
The materials in question pose an environmental risk associated with plastic litter in general, such as the danger of being eaten by animals and upsetting the ocean’s ecological balance.
“Obviously, PPE is critical right now, but we know that with increased amounts of plastic and a lot of this stuff getting out into the ocean, it can be a really big threat to marine mammals and all marine life,” Adam Ratner, conservation educator for the Marine Mammal Center, told the AP.
He added that there are steps people can take to mitigate environmental harm, such as cutting mask loops before discarding them.
Advocacy organization OceansAsia said in a 2020 report that nearly 1.6 billion masks likely ended up in the oceans over the course of the year.
“The 1.56 billion face masks that will likely enter our oceans in 2020 are just the tip of the iceberg,” says Teale Phelps Bondaroff, director of research for OceanAsia said in a statement. “The 4,680 to 6,240 metric tonnes of face masks are just a small fraction of the estimated 8 to 12 million metric tonnes of plastic that enter our oceans each year.”