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Masks, gloves, and other coronavirus waste are starting to fill up our oceans

The key to preventing coronavirus waste threatening the oceans may be to discourage the use of disposable masks and other single-use PPE.

Masks, gloves, and other coronavirus waste are starting to fill up our oceans
[Photos: Fernando Jorge/, pioneer111/iStock, kuppa_rock/iStock]
. So far, under the category of COVID Priority Items, the volunteers have picked up 23 disinfectant wipes, 23 gloves, and 12 masks.

while the early numbers aren’t staggering, they’re a signal of a global problem to come, especially because the items in question are essential gear that’s stocking up across the entire world. a june announced that the agency had sent 149.2 million surgical masks, 14.3 million face shields, and over 1 billion gloves around the u.s. in april, 2 billion disposable masks from china.

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沙巴体育手机登录in france, members of , or clean sea operation, go on frequent dives off the french côte d’azur around antibes and cannes, pulling items from the sea, and later posting images of their findings—still-intact disposable masks and water-filled rubber gloves they’d found on the seabed—on facebook. julie hellec, the group’s spokeswoman, says the ppe items only account for 5% of total waste collected during these recent dives, but “we wish to alert the world that that could become 80% if we do nothing.”

those items are likely to become “a catastrophe for biodiversity,” hellec says. marine life of all kinds can get entangled in masks. for sea turtles, water-filled latex gloves resemble jellyfish, one of their prey, and ingesting them can lead to death from asphyxiation, or from starvation because their stomachs think they are full. oceansasia, an advocacy group that investigates wildlife crimes, found a mountain of masks on in february, while the virus was rampant in asia. gary stokes, a campaigner for the group, said that dolphins and porpoises are at risk of swallowing bundled masks.

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most of these items also contain some amount of plastic. surfrider’s plastic pollution manager, rachael coccia, says most single-use masks contain polypropylene, a thermoplastic polymer, and that even cotton ppe items contain polyester, a plastic fiber. most gloves are composed of nitrile, which contains plastic. these plastics remain in oceans for years, breaking down into microplastics, eaten by fish and plankton and eventually ending up in the food on our plates. plastic bottles and disposable diapers, for instance, can last in some form for , according to the national oceanic and atmospheric administration.

沙巴体育手机登录, a nonprofit environmental advocacy group, also does an international coastal cleanup once a year in september, when a million volunteers all over the world take part; in 2018, they found 400,000 waste items. this year, its volunteers will be able to update the group’s online database, clean swell, with covid-19-related items, too. nick mallos, senior director of its trash free seas program, is concerned that coronavirus waste will generate a new waste stream with its own set of problems. he worries that plastic waste accumulation could lead to increased standing water, creating new diseases altogether.

for mallos, the covid-19 crisis has exposed a global waste management crisis. even if items are disposed of correctly, they may still resurface in the oceans due to mismanaged waste and sanitation. “this global pandemic is really highlighting just how critical proper waste collection and recycling is to our global society,” he says, “and how easily our systems can be overwhelmed by things like single-use plastics.”

disposable masks count as single-use plastics because of their components. “there are ways to use these items in a sustainable manner,” says surfrider’s coccia, who says people should be using reusable masks instead. the government, she says, is responsible for producing better messaging on how to properly disinfect reusable masks so their use becomes common practice. policymakers need to establish policies for this education, and to discourage the use of single-use masks and gloves.

in france, the first phase of a single-use plastic ban started on january 1 this year, but hellec says single-use plastic ppe items have now undone some of that hard work. there, government action is also viewed as key. eric pauget, a politician representing the côte d’azur region, to president macron in may. “with a life span of 450 years, this equipment constitutes veritable ecological time bombs, given their lasting environmental consequences for our planet,” the letter read. “it is ultimately the implementation of an educational and dissuasive policy that must raise awareness to promote responsible behavior.”

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