There has been a visible rise in the usage of face masks due to Covid-19 but once these disposable masks are used, they end up everywhere from the roadside and even to the seashores.
Single-use face masks threatening the ocean
A group of conservationists warned that the Covid-19 pandemic could trigger a surge in ocean pollution, adding to the plastic waste that is already threatening marine life. This was after they found disposable single-use face masks and latex gloves floating in the ocean like jellyfish and some scattered in the seabeds.
French non-profit Opération Mer Propre (Operation Clean Sea), which regularly picks up litter along the French Riviera, sounded the alarm late last month, reports The Guardian. Joffrey Peltier, who is a part of the said organization, said that divers found “Covid waste” or bottles of hand sanitizer, masks, and gloves beneath the waves of Mediterranean combined with the usual litter of aluminum cans and disposable cups.
He added that although the quantities of the single-use face masks and gloves found were far from enormous, their discovery could hint at a new kind of ocean pollution and one that is set to become more obvious after millions of people around the world rely on single-use plastics to stop the spread of coronavirus.
Laurent Lombard of Opération Mer Propre also said that in France, authorities have ordered nearly two billion masks from China, a move that could change the health recommendations in France for face masks. Knowing such a fact, we may soon run the risk of having more face masks in the ocean than jellyfish, he posted on Facebook alongside a video of a dive that show soiled gloves and algae-entangled masks in the sea near a resort town Antibes. He wrote that it is everyone’s responsibility to avoid this new pollution.
Swapping latex gloves for a more frequent handwashing
The French group hopes that the video and photos they released will prompt people to swap latex gloves for more frequent handwashing and use reusable face masks instead. Peltier pointed out that plastic is not the solution to protect us from the Covid-19 pandemic with all alternatives available.
Before the pandemic, environmentalists had already been warning the public about the threat of plastic pollution to marine life and the ocean. An estimate released by the UN Environment showed that about 13 million plastics go into the ocean every year. In the Mediterranean Sea alone, 570,000 tons of plastic flow annually. International non-governmental organization World Wildlife Fund said such an amount of plastic is equal to dumping 33,800 plastic bottles every minute into the sea. The figures may substantially grow as the world confronts the pandemic. French politician Éric Pauget, whose region includes Côte d’Azur, said that face masks often contain plastics such as polypropylene.
An ecological timebomb
Pauget wrote a letter last month to the President of France Emmanuel Macron to say that the face masks are an “ecological timebomb” as they have a lifespan of 450 years. He called on the President to do more to address the environmental consequences of the single-use masks.
Hong Kong-based marine conservation OceansAsia, known to use intelligence-based conservation techniques, recently raised a similar concern. This was after it conducted a survey on the marine debris in the uninhabited Soko Islands in Hong Kong, where they found dozens of disposable masks.
OceansAsia’s co-founder Gary Stokes, who is also a diving instructor and a professional photographer focused on exposing the shark fin industry, said that they found about 70 disposable masks on a beach that is about 100 meters long. Another 30 were found that had washed up. He highlighted the fact that these discarded masks were found on an uninhabited island.
As he was curious about how far the face masks traveled, he also started checking the nearby beaches and found masks everywhere. He said that the cause and effects are evident on beaches since society began wearing face masks. However, he believes that although some of the marine debris can be caused by the carelessness of people, the masks may also be carried from landfills, land, and boats by the wind. It is not worse nor better but just “another item” of marine debris that we are leaving as a legacy for the next generation, he said.
Nevertheless, he was bracing for a grim result because of the likelihood that dolphins and porpoises in the region may mistake the lightweight mask as food.
How to properly dispose of face masks
Delhi-based Eco Roots Foundation’s Rakesh Khatri also told Hindustan Times that used face masks must be disposed of properly or destroyed. The environmentalist encourages the washing of used masks in an antiseptic liquid and then they must be kept ideally for 72 hours before dumping them along with other garbage. A used face mask should not be found littered on the street or anywhere at all. Considering the limited scope of testing during this pandemic, one never knows whether they are an asymptomatic carrier or not. If a person is an asymptomatic carrier and carelessly throws his or her used gloves and face masks, it could create problems for other people who come in contact with them.
Gloves are also recommended for regular use in some countries as other shops and supermarkets often make shoppers wear one before they enter. In Spain, gloves are not even recyclable.
Our World in Data, a scientific online publication that focuses on large global problems, shares that plastics persist for decades and accumulate on our shorelines. Much of the macroplastics – larger plastic materials greater than 0.5 centimeters in diameter – in our shorelines is from the past 15 years and it could persist for several decades without breaking down. About 40 million tons of microplastics – smaller particles less than 0.5 centimeters – and 82 million tons of macroplastics are washed up, buried, and then resurfaced in the shorelines.
The ecological impacts are devastating as marine and marine-related animals could mistake the marine debris for their natural diet. In addition, it could threaten the endemic flora and fauna, and the aesthetic aspect of the coastline beaches also needs to be considered. May the public and policymakers consider the words of environmentalists who say that plastic is not the solution to protect the world from Covid-19.