Conservationists have warned that the coronavirus pandemic could spark a surge in ocean pollution – adding to a glut of plastic waste that already threatens marine life – after finding disposable masks floating like jellyfish and waterlogged latex gloves scattered across seabeds.
Between the end of February and mid-April this year more than a billion items of personal protective equipment were given out in the UK alone. In late February, Hong Kong-based organization OceansAsia reported finding "masses of surgical masks washing up on the shoreline" in the Soko Islands.
Using masks to reduce the spread of germs has been a cultural staple in Asia long before the Covid-19 pandemic, but OceansAsia noted a marked difference.
The production of single-use PPE has drastically ramped up during the pandemic. A recent study in the Environment, Science & Technology journal estimates that 129 billion face masks and 65 billion gloves are being used each month.
That’s millions of gloves and masks being used then thrown away every single day - just in UK healthcare settings. So it’s not difficult to see why conservationists around the world are sounding the alarm over where all these single-use products are ending up.
Waterlogged masks, gloves, hand sanitizer bottles, and other coronavirus waste are already being found on our seabeds and washed up on our beaches, joining the day-to-day detritus in our ocean ecosystems.
Single-use plastic waste is not the only impact COVID-19 is having on the environment.
Despite a temporary crash in carbon emissions as lockdowns have meant fewer people travelling and less industrial activity, there are concerns the pandemic will divert governments’ attention away from green issues.
The UN’s COP26 climate change conference, set to be held in November 2020, has already been postponed.
In some US cities, recycling programmes have been paused, while parts of virus-hit Italy and Spain also put a hold on recycling.
The quarantine economy has driven more people online, resulting in greater packaging waste from deliveries. Medical waste has rocketed.
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Vetre. Face mask in ocean. Coronavirus protection. 2020. Photograph. Shutterstock.