It’s an externality of the COVID-19 crisis that shouldn’t surprise any of us: It turns out the disposable gear we’re using to protect ourselves from the novel coronavirus is ending up in places we don’t want it to go after we’re done with it.
A French nonprofit has warned that there might be “more masks than jellyfish” in some of the world’s most popular diving destinations — and that could be just the beginning of the COVID waste problem.
Opération Mer Propre — Operation Clean Sea — says discarded PPE isn’t a problem of massive proportions — yet. According to CNN, it represents only 5 percent of all the waste the group has collected during its cleanups.
That’s likely to increase, however, the more we rely on single-use masks, bottles of hand sanitizer and gloves.
“If someone had alerted us to the problem of plastic bottles and plastic bags from the start, would we have continued?” Julie Hellec, a spokeswoman for Opération Mer Propre, told CNN for a report published last month.
She said that finding PPE during her cleanup dives in the Mediterranean Sea was a first in the 15 years she’s been working with the group.
Laurent Lombard, founder of Opération Mer Propre, said in a Facebook post earlier in May, “How would you like swimming with COVID-19 this summer?”
In the post, Lombard added that “soon there may be more masks than jellyfish.”
“It’s the promise of pollution to come if nothing is done,” said Joffrey Peltier, another member of the group, according to The Guardian.
Thousands of miles away in Hong Kong, the story is the same, according to conservation group OceansAsia.
“During a recent survey trip to the Soko’s islands the OceansAsia team finds masses of surgical masks washing up on the shoreline,” the group wrote on its website in February.
The Soko Islands are a mostly uninhabited chain in Hong Kong.
“One item that was very noticeable as a new addition to the myriad of marine debris is surgical masks. Over time the team has seen the odd mask here and now, however this time they were all along the high tide line and foreshore with new arrivals coming in on the current,” the post read.
“Due to the current COVID-19 corona virus, the general population have all taken the precaution to wear surgical masks. When you suddenly have a population of 7 million people wearing one to two masks per day the amount of trash generated is going to be substantial.”
And, as CNN pointed out, it’s going to get a whole lot more substantial.
“The production of single-use PPE has drastically ramped up during the pandemic. A recent study in the Environment, Science & Technology journal estimates that 129 billion face masks and 65 billion gloves are being used each month,” the report said.
“Nick Mallos, a senior director with the nonprofit organization Ocean Conservancy, called these numbers ‘staggering.'”
Now, Opération Mer Propre might not be proposing the most pragmatic solutions to this issue. Peltier said he hoped people would start using reusable masks and go with frequent hand-washing instead of gloves.
“With all the alternatives, plastic isn’t the solution to protect us from Covid. That’s the message,” he said.
This sounds fantastic until you realize that, in many cases, plastic, latex and single-use masks are far superior to the alternatives.
However, what you do with those items once you’re done with them is your personal responsibility.
“A simple gesture like not throwing a glove on the ground is to save the planet,” Hellec told CNN.
Which isn’t inaccurate. Your PPE belongs in the garbage can when you’re finished with it. Keep in mind, we’re in a position where we can do something about this kind of waste.
“In many places around the world, the basic waste collection does not exist to manage that volume of waste, so unfortunately we are likely to see that waste finding its way downstream on beaches and in the ocean,” Mallos said.
“Even here in the United States, in the EU, in other places around the world that have robust and sophisticated waste systems, we’re still seeing PPE littering roadways, washing down waterways.”
It’s interesting that the people we’ve now termed “Karens” when it comes to vigilante mask enforcement are often in the same cohort that was trying to ban ocean-littering plastic straws when we had less pressing things to care about.
In both cases, however, the key is personal responsibility. Throw your stuff away. You’re an adult. And, well, if you’re a teen who’s not yet reached the age of majority who’s reading our fine website, you’re probably the upstanding non-snowflake type who has the ability to buck up and act like an adult.
Either way, you know where your mask goes when you’re done with it.
Yes, radical environmentalists are obnoxious, but you’re not “showing them” by littering. All you’re showing is a contempt for common decency that makes radical environmentalists more prominent.
Do your part. Keep our natural habitat clean and radical environmentalists off cable news.
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