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How face masks, gloves and other coronavirus waste are polluting the ocean

Doctored image of a turtle swimming with a protective face mask

Doctored image of a turtle swimming with a protective face mask.

Martina Badini

Between the end of February and mid-April, more than 1 billion items of personal protective equipment were given out in the United Kingdom alone.

That’s millions of gloves and masks being used then thrown away every single day — just in U.K. 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 already are being found on our seabeds and washed up on our beaches, joining the day-to-day detritus in our ocean ecosystems.

Along with photos and videos giving disturbing evidence of this new form of pollution, French clean-up charity Opération Mer Propre is among those calling for action. "There risks being more masks than jellyfish," Laurent Lombard of the organization said in one Facebook post.

It’s just as much of a problem on the other side of the world. Back in February, OceansAsia flagged the growing number of masks being discovered during its plastic pollution research. Masses of masks were found on the Soko Islands, a small cluster off the coast of Hong Kong.

Adding to the problem

Already, some 8 million tonnes of plastics enter our ocean every year, adding to the estimated 150 million tonnes already circulating in marine environments.

One study estimates that in the U.K. alone, if every person used a single-use face mask a day for a year, it would create an additional 66,000 tonnes of contaminated waste and 57,000 tonnes of plastic packaging.

Single-use plastic waste is not the only impact COVID-19 is having on the environment.

World leaders and politicians are aware of the problem — and that it needs to be addressed.

"Maritime nations know far better than anyone how our ocean economies are dependent on ocean health," said Zac Goldsmith, minister of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in the U.K., in a recent World Economic Forum webinar about ensuring a green recovery.

"But we all ultimately depend on our shared oceans and changing the role that plastic plays in every part of our economy. Efforts to tackle plastic pollution can help us improve ocean health, tackle climate change, support biodiversity and build sustainable livelihoods."

COVID-19’s cost to the environment

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 traveling and less industrial activity, there are concerns the pandemic will divert governments’ attention away from green issues.

The United Nations' COP26 climate change conference, set to be held in November, already has been postponed.

In some U.S. cities, recycling programs 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.

Import and export restrictions, as well as declines in the availability of cargo transportation, mean that large amounts of food also have gone to waste. As this organic waste decays, it will release greenhouse gases.

And unless economic stimuli focus on green initiatives, there is a risk of a sudden upsurge in polluting activity as construction and manufacturing are used to drive recovery from the global downturn the virus has created.

"Let this moment be a wake-up call for all of us," Goldsmith says. "As countries emerge from the pandemic, we will all have to find ways to rebuild and to renew.

"And I think that gives us a one-off huge opportunity to choose a different path — one that ensures environmental sustainability and resilience are the lens through which we make decisions and map out our recovery."

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