Masks aren’t only reason pandemic is adding to coastal trash

Disposable masks, gloves and wipes are helping suppress the spread of COVID-19, but they’re adding significantly to plastic litter that’s trashing our shores and ocean, according to a study from the Ocean Conservancy released Tuesday, March 30.

Coastal pollution has been further worsened by the pandemic-driven increase in take-out food and the subsequent littering of single-use plastic containers. And even as more trash reaches the beach, the pandemic also has meant fewer volunteers for beach cleanups.

The report, based on data collected worldwide in the last half of 2020, documented 107,219 items of personal protective equipment gathered by the conservancy’s cleanup partners. On Sept. 19, California’s Coastal Cleanup Day, more than 6,000 masks and gloves were collected by some 13,000 volunteers, according to state organizers. Turnout was down dramatically, from the 75,000 people who volunteered to pick up beach litter in 2019.

However, the conservancy noted that because of limitations in cleanup activities and available data, the documented totals were “just the tip of the iceberg.”

“PPE, like gloves and masks, has been absolutely critical in keeping the public safe throughout the pandemic,” said Nick Mallos, senior director of the conservancy’s Trash Free Seas program. “At the same time, there’s no doubt that the resulting plastic pollution has taken a significant toll on the environment and that, like with many pollutants, the ocean is the first to bear the costs.”

In addition to documented cases of marine life becoming entangled in masks, plastic content in the masks, gloves and wipes breaks apart and can be mistaken for food — or continues to break down into non-biodegradable microscopic pieces that are inadvertently digested by fish.

Disposable masks can release as much as 173,000 microfibers per day in a simulated marine environment, according to research published this month in the journal Environmental Awareness. Microplastics were found in 60% of ocean fish examined in a separate study published in the Marine Pollution Bulletin, with microfibers accounting for 90% of microplastics digested by fish, crustaceans and bivalves.

Microplastics also have been found in water supplies, and the average person digests thousands of particles of plastic a year, according to the journal Environmental Science and Technology.

“Fortunately, there are actions we can take to prevent this global health crisis from exacerbating the existing plastic pollution crisis,” Mallos said. Beside addressing pandemic-related litter, the conservancy is hoping to use the new study to raise awareness about the need to reduce all forms of plastic waste.

Solutions endorsed

Of the approximately 215 cleanup coordinators and volunteers responding to a conservancy survey, 94% said they saw personal protective equipment during their cleanups and half said they noticed those items among litter daily. During cleanups, 80% of respondents said masks were the most prevalent of the protective items gathered.

Much if not most of the trash that goes into storm drains ends up in the ocean.

“A number of respondents noted that (protective equipment) tends to accumulate in certain places, such as outside restaurants and bars that require masks,” the conservancy report said. “Respondents also noted that sanitizing wipes, another form of PPE, are sometimes visible in places where shopping carts are sanitized.”

The report called on businesses to have sufficient trash cans for customers and employees to properly dispose of the items. In addition to calling on individuals to safeguard against litter — including tying garbage bags to ensure nothing escapes — the report noted that sanitary wipes can clog sewer lines and should not be flushed down the toilet.

But the broadest actions called for in the U.S. by the conservancy were directed at federal and state lawmakers.

At the top of the list was the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act, co-authored by Rep. Alan Lowenthal, D-Long Beach, which is aimed at reducing plastic production and increasing plastic recycling. The conservancy also called on federal agencies to phase out the purchase of “unnecessary single-use plastics.”

On the state level, the report praised California for last year becoming the first state to pass a law requiring at least 15% recycled content in plastic bottles, a standard that will be increased to 50% by 2030. It called on other states to do the same.

It also called on states to follow the lead of Maine, Maryland, New York, Vermont and Virginia in banning foam food containers, and to follow the lead of New Jersey in passing the “strongest single-use plastic ban” in the country.

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