COVID-19 Waste Pollution on Beaches and in Oceans Extremely Alarming

Nature

There is no accurate data on the actual estimates of COVID waste turning up in beaches and oceans worldwide. However, evidence abounds that the current pandemic is currently washing up plastic waste such as empty alcohol and hand sanitizer bottles, and personal protective equipment (PPE) such as latex gloves and disposable masks in the world’s beaches and oceans.

The United Nations Environment Program has estimated that the plastic waste that proliferates in the world’s oceans is already at 13 million metric tons annually. With the present COVID-19 pandemic, more and more waste is inundating our seas.

Single-use PPEs are helping people, and frontline healthcare workers worldwide combat SARS-CoV-2, the COVID-19-carrying coronavirus. Unfortunately, environmental warriors and organizations are expressing concern that the increased plastic production for PPEs is creating an extremely alarming level of plastic pollution, which is an unintended consequence of the battle against coronavirus.

Demand for face masks around the world is already in the billions. This does not include other protective equipment made of petroleum and other plastics, such as gloves, hand sanitizers, and protective suits. This high demand is causing alarm to many people and advocates as these plastic waste can turn up in the seabed and shorelines.

The nonprofit Opération Mer Propre (French for “Operation Clean Sea”) is a leader in clean-up efforts and litter clean-ups along the Côte d’Azur. Divers and members have raised concerns about the disposable masks, dozens of gloves, and hand sanitizer bottles in the Mediterranean on top of the usual aluminum cans and disposable cups.

Joffrey Peltier from Opération Mer Propre has expressed concern as this COVID waste pollution might be even more pervasive after the entire globe has turned to disposable plastic PPEs for the battle against COVID-19.

Disposable masks, for example, seem to be made with cotton. However, these are made from non-biodegradable materials such as polypropylene. CBC has reported that Canadian facilities are witnessing an upsurge in COVID waste that does not biodegrade, such as gloves, discarded masks, and wet wipes. These items are being flushed down toilets and into sewage pipes, creating a massive problem for water treatment facilities.

Land-based activities are responsible for almost 80 percent of water or ocean pollution, while 50 percent of ocean pollution is a direct consequence of single-use plastic. Gary Stokes of the Hong Kong-based environmental group OceansAsia said in March that masks have only been used heavily for a couple of months due to the threat of COVID-19. Yet, the massive impact of these discarded PPEs on the environment and marine life is hugely evident.

OceansAsia has expressed their concern after marine debris, mainly discarded masks, have turned up in the uninhabited Soko Islands. Stokes mentioned that despite being an uninhabited island in the middle of nowhere, with only around 100-meter beach length, marine surveys have resulted in 70 washed up masks in a week, and another 30 masks the following week.

He also expressed worry because although elusive porpoises have been seen recently on the footage, many have been washing up dead along the coasts, and both porpoises and dolphins might mistake these COVID wastes for food.

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