Pandemic plastic pollution already hitting the oceans

In recent months, a new type of plastic has appeared in the oceans – personal protective equipment – that binds to the discarded plastic straws, bags, and other debris that pollute the water.

The appearance of gloves, masks and other equipment in the oceans comes from the coronavirus pandemic forcing a tough compromise between health and the environment. The use of plastic in PPE is particularly important for medical personnel. The widespread public acceptance, however, increases the pollution caused by marine plastics.

“We create huge amounts of waste because we believe it is protective,” said Ellie Moss, principal at Moss & Mollusk Consulting for corporate environmental strategies. “We have to make sure that this crisis doesn’t lead to a mountain of waste.”

Plastic pollution in the oceans threatens marine life when fish and marine mammals ingest or become entangled in it.

PPE appearing in ocean waters just a few months after the pandemic broke out shows how quickly plastic can pollute waterways, Moss said.

High-flying plastic production

The pollution is mainly caused by litter being washed into bodies of water, but another source is countries like India that don’t have strong waste disposal systems, said Moss, who along with Jambeck and others wrote a “blue paper” on ocean pollution for the high-level Panel on Sustainable Marine Management, a project by 14 world leaders and the United Nations Secretary-General’s Special Representative for the Ocean.

Global plastic production has exploded, from 1.7 million tons per year in 1950 to 422 million tons per year in 2018. Both micro- and macro-plastics can enter the ocean by direct discharge and drain into rivers, which then into the Ocean flow. Land runoff or air deposition into waterways according to the blue paper.

An open source mobile app, the Marine Debris Tracker, detects the plastic protective gear by allowing people to report what type of litter they discover in the ocean, said Jenna Jambeck, the tracker’s developer and associate professor of environmental engineering from the University of Georgia.

Difference between life and death

The plastics industry sees single-use PPE as essential equipment.

“Single-use plastics were the difference between life and death during this pandemic,” the Plastics Industry Association, also known as PLASTICS, said in a statement.

The organization said it wanted to protect the environment through better proper disposal and recycling of PPE, and said it was good for ecosystems and economies.

Honeywell International Inc. declined to comment and 3M Co. did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Honeywell and 3M are two PPE manufacturers with the largest market share.

Non-medical applications

Moss said that while plastic is needed in a medical context, it is not necessarily the case for individuals.

There’s no evidence that reusable products like cloth masks, gloves, and bags are dangerous, she said. In fact, a study published by the New England Journal of Medicine found that Covid-19 lasted the longest on plastic and stainless steel.

Reusable products like bags and mugs can be used safely during the coronavirus pandemic as long as basic hygiene practices are followed, Greenpeace USA Inc. said on Monday in a statement approved by more than 100 health professionals worldwide.

By nature, single-use plastic is no safer than reusable products because the virus can stay infectious for different lengths of time on either surface. Reusable or disposable products can be cleaned with widely used household disinfectants such as soap and detergent.

The Environmental Protection Agency is “aware of media reports” of PPE pollution and “supports state and local efforts to ensure that these materials are properly disposed of in landfills,” an agency spokesman said.

The EPA recommends disposing of disinfectant wipes, gloves, masks and other PPE in trash cans and keeping them out of recycling bins.

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