While the COVID-19 pandemic and its shutdown of so many human activities has reduced many kinds of pollution, it has also managed to create a new source of pollution: face masks and sanitary gloves.
Divers from a French non-profit organization called Operation Clean Sea are already finding gloves, masks, and hand sanitizer bottles beneath the waves of the Mediterranean, along with the usual litter of disposable cups and aluminum cans. In France, authorities have ordered 2 billion disposable masks. Given that, there may soon be the risk of having more masks in the Mediterranean than jellyfish. In Hong Kong, face masks have been piling up on beaches and nature trails. Even in Hong Kong’s isolated and uninhabited Soko Islands, dozens of masks are showing up on a small stretch of beach.
Disposable masks may feel like soft cotton, but almost all of them are made from non-biodegradable material such as polypropylene. When such masks are discarded into storm drains, they end up in rivers and seas. With a lifespan of hundreds of years, these masks are an ecological timebomb. Land-based activity accounts for 80% of ocean pollution, and half of that is a direct result of single-use plastics. Many of the CDC’s recent recommendations for reopening offices and businesses actually recommend the increased use of them, and for sensible reasons.
The best we can all do is to wear reusable masks and to try to wash our hands more often rather than putting on another pair of latex gloves. Given that there are alternatives, we don’t need to make plastic the solution to protect us from Covid-19.
Photo, posted March 28, 2020, courtesy of Michael Swan via Flickr.