Before COVID-19, there was a staggering amount of plastic pollution in the world’s oceans. Eight metric tons of plastic enter the ocean each year, which is equivalent to a garbage truck full of plastic waste being dumped into the water every minute of every day.
Now, in the middle of a pandemic, the problem is only getting worse. As more people don single-use masks and latex gloves, the amount of “COVID Waste” finding its way into waterways is astounding, say conservationists.
COVID-19 has triggered the global use of 129 billion face masks and 65 billion gloves every month. If these materials aren’t disposed of properly, the amount of COVID Waste alone could cover an area the size of Switzerland.
Environmentalists and politicians call for change
The glut of used masks and gloves is a worldwide problem, but one French non-profit, Operation Mer Propre, is trying to sound the alarm on the issue. The non-profit released a video of disposable masks floating in the Mediterranean Sea and algae-covered gloves lining the ocean floor.
If the problem continues, “There could be more masks drifting through the ocean than jellyfish,” Laurent Lombard of Opération Mer Propre tells The Guardian.
In response, French politician Éric Pauget is asking the country’s president to consider the environmental impacts of single-use masks.
“With a lifespan of 450 years, these masks are an ecological timebomb given their lasting environmental consequences for our planet,” he wrote in his letter Emmanuel Macron, asking the French president to consider using “green masks” that are made of natural materials.
The problem stems beyond masks and gloves
While the use of personal protective equipment has elevated the ocean’s pollution rate, it’s not the only culprit. Additional problems include:
Suspended recycling programs
Some cities and states are struggling to keep recycling programs running. Between strained budgets and a lack of personnel during an outbreak, some municipalities have suspended or limited routes to cope. As a result, plastic that typically gets recycled finds its way to a landfill or ocean.
More takeout containers
For many restaurants shuttered during the onset of the pandemic selling takeout meals is one of the few ways these establishments were able to generate income, but it has also created more plastic waste. The increased amount of plastic and Styrofoam containers is contributing to the glut of plastic waste bobbing in the tide.
Virgin plastic is super cheap right now
The oil market collapsed during the pandemic, which means one of the main ingredients in plastic – oil – is ridiculously cheap right now. For companies that are taking a hit financially, packaging products in virgin plastic is a more lucrative choice than other eco-friendly options.
How you can do your part to curb plastic pollution
To help address this problem, consumers can take these steps:
- Opt for reusable masks over single-use masks.
- Limit the gloves. The CDC says gloves are not necessary when consumers run errands and only suggest wearing them when caring for someone who has the virus.
- Recycle plastic containers of hand sanitizer, disinfectants, and cleaning products.
- Consider joining the fight for existing technology that can further fight plastic pollution, like refill technology. Imagine being able to refill containers of your favorite household products at kiosks inside retail stores. It’s possible. Sign the petition to join the refill movement today.
If everyone made a commitment to curb plastic, even during a pandemic, it could make a big difference in the amount of ocean pollution.