During the coronavirus pandemic, disposable masks, gloves, and other forms of personal protective equipment are saving countless lives. They’re also contributing to global warming by littering streets and dumping hazardous plastic and other waste into landfills, drainage systems, and oceans.
Environmental organizations in Northern California are keeping track of the crisis along the coast — and seeking to do something about it.
The Pacific Beach Coalition, which has been cleaning beaches in and around Pacifica, south of San Francisco, on a monthly basis for nearly 25 years, has recently noticed a drastic rise in discarded PPE.
Volunteers keep track of what they find in order to determine what could end up in the ocean. The litter was mainly cigarette butts and food wrappers until 2020.
“How are we going to proceed? We were given masks. We were given gloves. We got all of the sani wipes and all of the hand wipes. They’re all over the place. They’ve taken up residency in my neighborhood and on my streets. Lynn Adams, the coalition’s founder, wondered aloud, “What should we do?”
The organization, along with others, is raising awareness about the problem, claiming that what has been identified is likely only a small portion of the personal protective equipment that is being used on beaches and in the oceans.
PPE can be consumed by larger animals, and the plastic from the products can damage ocean food chains. Adams said, “They’re all made of plastic.”
Based on global demand projections and other factors, a study released last year by the advocacy group OceansAsia estimated that approximately 1.6 billion masks would flood oceans in 2020 alone. According to OceansAsia, masks may take up to 450 years to degrade.
Animals may get stuck in discarded PPE or mistake it for food, according to the Marine Mammal Center, a conservation organization that rescues and rehabilitates mammals, conducts research, and offers education.
“Obviously, PPE is important right now,” Adam Ratner, the center’s conservation instructor, said, “but we also know that increased levels of plastic and a lot of this material going out into the ocean can be a very big danger to marine mammals and all marine life.”
Cutting the loops before discarding a mask, as suggested by Ratner, will help prevent animals from being trapped in them.
Last week, Sophia Woehl was one of the volunteers who helped clean up a beach in Pacifica.
“We want to keep ourselves secure, but we also want to keep the rest of the world safe, which we aren’t doing right now by only leaving them on the ground,” she said.