In an attempt to protect themselves and others from the coronavirus, millions of people are donning plastic masks, gloves and other types of personal protective equipment. From restaurant staff to medical personnel, workers and the general public are using and discarding thousands of single-use plastic PPE every day. Often, these items end up in parks and parking lots and on front lawns and sidewalks. They’re also making their way into our oceans.
Whether the wind blows them into waterways or beachgoers carelessly toss them in the sand, masks, gloves, empty hand sanitizer bottles and other plastics are beginning to appear on the water’s surface, beaches and along the ocean floor. Conservationists have even found hundreds of masks on the uninhabited Soko Islands off the coast of Hong Kong. This new addition to the waste already littering our seas spells even more trouble for marine life and the health of ocean ecosystems.
Waste Management Dilemmas
On top of public carelessness, the vulnerable state of many waste-management systems is also adding to the dilemma. In the informal economy, waste pickers collect millions of tonnes of plastic waste each year. However, since many don’t have job security or health benefits, they’re beginning to succumb to the virus or refraining from work altogether. Subsequently, more plastic PPE is remaining in garbage dumps, increasing the likelihood of them blowing away and ending up in waterways or oceans.
Of course, the plastic industry isn’t helping the matter, either. Instead of encouraging people to protect themselves with washable masks and other reusable PPE, the industry has insisted that these are unsanitary. Although this statement has no medical evidence to support it, you might have listened to them out of fear for your own safety, opting to buy disposable PPE over making your own.
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