Blue medical surgical mask floating underwater as an example of PPE in the seas

PPE in the Seas! How COVID-19 Affected Our Oceans (And What the World Is Doing About It)

by kirkcoburn
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Nations and states around the world are emerging from the COVID-19 pandemic, each at a different pace. Now that we’re looking back on our actions, it’s clear that the pandemic has exposed flaws in the global waste management system, particularly when it comes to plastic debris and marine pollution. But in 2021, we must tackle a new facet of pollution: PPE in the seas. 

Welcome to the second piece in this blog series dedicated to ocean pollution. The last article talked about sea turtles, plastic straws, and other types of pollution from industrial applications, consumer use, and sewage. In a sense, we could consider these “traditional” types of maritime pollution that we’ve been dealing with for decades.

PPE in the Seas

In the race to manufacture, distribute, wear, and toss exponentially higher numbers of single-use personal protective equipment like masks and gloves since COVID-19 began, we’ve dealt a serious blow to the environment. As land mammals, we humans see the used PPE piling up at parking lots and roadsides. But even more waste is finding its way to the ocean. 

How Much PPE Is in Our Oceans?

No one can say. We know that Ocean Conservancy added PPE to its list of waste items that volunteers can pick up and record, and in six months, more than 107,000 PPE items were picked up from shorelines, counted, and disposed of properly. 

In June 2020, Ashifa Kassam wrote that the number of discarded face masks floating in the ocean is greater than the number of jellyfish swimming there. But we find that to be a rhetorical statement at best.

In truth, there is no sure way to count or weigh the amount of PPE that has made its way into the oceans since the pandemic began. (But there’s also not an accurate count of species of jellyfish on the planet, much less an accurate census of them.)

But emotionally charged statements about PPE in the seas aside, we do know those discarded masks and gloves surely add to the United Nations (UN) 2018 estimate of 13 million tons of plastic trash heading to the oceans annually. 

Who Is Responsible for the PPE in the Seas?

China is the leader in traditional plastics pollution, by far. So it’s safe to assume it’s the leader in PPE pollution, as well, thanks to its enormous population and cultural affinity for medical masks.

Still, it’s faulty reasoning to direct blame for PPE pollution at one specific nation or culture. We all wore masks in 2020. The only exceptions might be tribal and indigenous peoples deep in the jungles of Africa who don’t rely on mass media and don’t care to. 

One could say that every advanced or developing nation has some responsibility for PPE in the seas. Not to point fingers, but we know that cities like Kuala Lumpur, Manila, Hanoi, and Bangkok nearly doubled the amount of medical waste produced during the pandemic — making 154 to 280 tons more medical waste daily than in 2019.

Also, as the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) points out, if just 1% of the 1 billion masks used in Italy monthly are discarded improperly, it would lead to an accumulation of 10 million more plastic masks in the environment every month (not that we support WWF as an infallible or unbiased source, but they make a strong point).

Will PPE Be an Ongoing Problem in our Oceans?

Yes, it’s almost certain that an influx of PPE in the seas will be an ongoing issue. Discarded single-use masks will wind up in starving whale tummies, crammed up turtle nostrils, and wrapped around seagull necks. We have a hunch that all these battered wildlife images are coming soon to an advertising campaign near you!

Hopefully, we have passed the peak of mask and personal protective gear use in the US, at least.

In China, however, residents are more familiar with daily masking. Asians have been wearing medical masks for decades. It’s ingrained into many cultures. Also, in Japan, wearing masks is a long-established practice. They’re a sign of good manners, to protect others when one is feeling under the weather.

So we might not be masking up in the US. But a significant portion of the world population will continue to do so. 

Thus, the problem of PPE pollution indicates an urgent need to invest in the waste management industry and develop new technologies that can turn the crisis into a growth opportunity. But, for now, let’s address what individuals, organizations, and governments are doing about plastics pollution overall, with a nod to the new impact of disposable masks and gloves. 

Let’s Talk About Solutions for PPE in the Seas

We’ll dive deeper into this in a future article in this series. For now, know that a report by SYSTEMIQ and Pew published in “Breaking the Plastic Wave” provides a seemingly solid assessment of some pathways we can use to reduce ocean plastics pollution. The report suggests we can reduce plastic pollution in the oceans by 80% over the next few decades.

The SYSTEMIQ/Pew report suggests that we take these steps to start:

  • Reduce growth in plastic consumption, and therefore reduce the need for plastic production
  • Substitute plastics with “greener” alternatives like paper or compostable materials
  • Design product packaging for recycling and reuse (meaning someday it will be classy to have Cool-Whip containers in your cupboards)
  • Expand waste collection rates in lower-income nations
  • Increase recycling efforts worldwide

In short, the notion is that we change our plastic manufacturing, consumption, and ideals completely. Plastics would become more expensive, higher quality, and more durable. Plastic containers would be reusable, and reuse would be socially acceptable — even trendy and applauded. 

And all of this is doable. It just requires enormous amounts of capital to launch and a commitment from governments and people around the world. 

What Are Governments Doing About PPE in the Seas and Plastics Pollution?

Dirty used disposable medical mask on beach by sea

If all world governments — particularly China and India — were to take an aggressive stance on PPE and plastics pollution, it would be a solvable problem. 

A Lot of Talk (But No Action Yet) in the US

Here in the US, the Biden Administration has promised to “build back better” after the pandemic. Infrastructure changes are likely on the horizon as part of the American Jobs Plan (which is in progress but not yet passed at the time of writing). We can imagine a happy home for recycled plastics in bridges, roads, public transportation, and federal buildings, as these are primary targets of the American Jobs Plan.

But we cannot find any resources that suggest any funds have been earmarked specifically for maritime PPE cleanup. 

Beijing’s 2020 Promise 

Think back to January 2020, when COVID-19 was only a rumor in the US and an epidemic in China. That’s when the Chinese government banned single-use plastics.

According to BBC News, the ban was meant to launch in major metropolitan areas immediately and be enforced in more rural areas come 2022. Other key notes include reducing plastic straws and other single-use items. Also, hotels had to stop offering single-use items by 2025. 

But, did it work? We are not in China to say for sure, but online sources claim the Chinese government is taking an aggressive approach. And we tend to believe them! China has a reputation for strict enforcement. We’ve seen that in the past. Major stores and chains have made the changes quickly, while mom-and-pops operations are said to be lagging. Again, it’s all believable stuff. 

But what about PPE? Well, we cannot find any sources that suggest China has made any specific laws regarding the disposal of plastic gloves or single-use medical masks, though the topic is well-covered in the news media there. That’s important because, with such an enormous population, PPE pollution from Asia is a significant problem now. It will also continue to be a problem in the future. 

In the meantime, what can we do as individuals? New technologies are on the horizon, but they need vetting, funding, and public awareness for success. 

A Personal Approach to PPE and Plastics in the Seas

Now that most US states are maskless — thank goodness for that — it is time to get ahead of the disposable PPE issue for the next pandemic situation. On a personal level, we can each choose to buy reusable cloth masks in the future. We can also become hyper-aware of proper disposal.

Recyclable mask materials might be in our future, too. However, the notion of recycling biohazardous medical devices gives us pause. Reusable materials must be handled with the utmost care during a pandemic. It might be better to incinerate them for the sake of public safety. 

Moving forward, we’d say the first step towards fixing the PPE and plastics problem in the seas is to become fully conscious of all the plastics we toss in a day and a lifetime. Detergent bottles, food packaging, even plastic straws will all add up fast. 

The next piece in this series will talk about some of the damaging effects of maritime pollution. We’ll take a closer look at technologies that might mitigate the problem. We’ll also think about the marketing it will take to change the behaviors of an entire world’s population.

Related Reading & Resources:

NOAA: A Guide to Plastic in the Ocean Collateral Damage: COVID-19’s Impact on Ocean Plastic Pollution

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