From surgical masks to gloves, the coronavirus crisis has led to a significant expansion of highly-needed plastic products around the globe. But the plastic always ends up somewhere, and that somewhere is often in the ocean.
French NGO Opération Mer Propre, which regularly picks up waste along the Côte d’Azur in France, sounded the alarm last month after divers found dozens of gloves, masks and bottles of hand sanitizer in the ocean — mixed with the usual waste.
The quantities of protective equipment that ended up in the water were ‘enormous’, Joffrey Peltier, head of the NGO, told The Guardian.
The NGO shared footage on its social media networks of algae-entangled masks and soiled gloves in the sea, hoping it would lead to people start using reusable masks and replace the latex gloves with more frequent handwashing.
“With all the alternatives, plastic isn’t the solution to protect us from COVID. That’s the message,” said Peltier.
Éric Pauget, a French politician from the Côte d’Azur Region, sent a letter to French President Emmanuel Macron, asking the government to deal with the growing ocean pollution.
“With a lifespan of 450 years, these masks are an ecological timebomb given their lasting environmental consequences for our planet,” he wrote
Meanwhile, in Hong Kong, the NGO OceansAsia expressed similar concerns earlier this year after finding dozens of disposable masks in the city’s Soko Islands, with no residents. “On a beach about 100 meters long, we found about 70,” Gary Stokes of OceansAsia, told The Guardian.
OceansAsia started looking at other beaches and found similar amounts of waste, claiming the masks are carried from land, boats and landfills by the wind.
“It’s just another item of marine debris,” Stokes said. “It’s no better, no worse, just another item we’re leaving as a legacy to the next generation.”
The problem isn’t new. Global plastic production has quadrupled over the past four decades, a study from last year found, with its authors warning that if that trend continues, the making of plastics will make up 15% of greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Some 8 million tons of plastic trash leak into the ocean annually.
As other types of plastic, the waste from masks and gloves raises important problems for marine wildlife.
“The structure of PPE will make it particularly hazardous for marine life,” John Hocevar, oceans campaign director at Greenpeace USA, told CNN. “Gloves, like plastic bags, can appear to be jellyfish or other types of foods for sea turtles, for example. The straps on masks can present entangling hazards.”
The plastic gloves and masks, like other plastic products, eventually break down and add to the wide collection of microplastics that can be found in the ocean. The risks of microplastics for human health is still being studied. But one possibility is that since plastics are added chemicals when they are manufactured those chemicals could be released in the body.
While plastics from the coronavirus epidemic are becoming a severe problem in the oceans, there’s another one playing out. Restrictions on single-use plastics are being paused or rolled back while governments deal with the health crisis.
The United Kingdom suspended a charge on plastic bags, while a ban on such items was also put on hold in some states in the United States such as Maine. At the same time, retailers including Starbucks have banned the use of reusable products to protect their customers from coronavirus.
The trend has created concern from global organizations including the World Bank. “These measures have all been announced as temporary, but how long will they stick, fed by anxiety around health concerns?” Grzegorz Peszko, a lead economist at the organization, asked in a blog post last month.
Environmental campaigners fear the plastic industry may want to take advantage of the public health concerns to promote the use of its products. “Parts of the plastic industry have worked really hard to exploit fears around Covid,” Hocevar said, remaining confident that the rollbacks will only be temporary.
In March, the Plastics Industry Association wrote to the US Department of Health, asking it to “make a public statement on the health and safety benefits seen in single-use plastics.” The pandemic is “forcing many Americans, businesses and government officials to realize that single-use plastics are often the safest choice,” the group said.