A new kind of plastic has been showing up in the oceans in recent months—personal protective equipment—joining the discarded plastic straws, bags and other detritus polluting the waters.
The appearance of gloves, masks and other gear in oceans comes as the coronavirus pandemic forces hard trade-offs between health and the environment. Some use of plastic in PPE is necessary, especially for medical personnel. But widespread adoption by the general public is adding to the load of marine plastics.
“We’re creating massive amounts of waste thinking it’s protective,” said Ellie Moss, a principal at Moss & Mollusk Consulting for environmental strategies for companies. “We need to make sure this crisis doesn’t result in a mountain of waste.”
Ocean plastic pollution threatens marine life when fish and marine mammals ingest it or become entangled in it.
PPE appearing in ocean waters only a few months after the pandemic erupted shows how quickly plastic can pollute waterways, Moss said.
Soaring Plastic Production
The pollution is mainly caused by litter washed into bodies of water, but another source is countries such as India that don’t have strong waste disposal systems, said Moss, who with Jambeck and others wrote a recent “blue paper” on ocean pollution for the High Level Panel for Sustainable Ocean Economy, a project of 14 world leaders and the United Nations secretary-general’s special envoy for the ocean.
Global plastic production has exploded, from 1.7 million metric tons per year in 1950 to 422 million metric tons/year in 2018. Both micro- and macro-plastics can enter the ocean through direct discharge, discharge into rivers that then flow into the ocean, runoff from land or deposit from air into waterways, according to the blue paper.
An open-source mobile app, the Marine Debris Tracker, is detecting the plastic protective gear by making it possible for people to report what kind of trash they’re spotting in the ocean, said Jenna Jambeck, the developer of the tracker and an associate professor of environmental engineering at the University of Georgia.
‘Life and Death’ Difference
The plastics industry sees disposable PPE as essential equipment.
“Single-use plastics have been the difference between life and death during this pandemic,” such as bags that hold solutions administered intravenously, ventilators, gloves, and masks, the Plastics Industry Association, also known as PLASTICS, said in a statement.
The organization said it wants to protect the environment through increased proper disposal and recycling of PPE, saying it would be good for ecosystems and economies.
Moss said that while plastic is needed in a medical context, that isn’t necessarily the case for individuals.
There’s no evidence of reusable products like cloth masks, gloves, and bags being dangerous to use, she said. In fact, a study published by the New England Journal of Medicine found that Covid-19 lasted longest on plastic and stainless steel.
Reusable products like bags and cups are safe to use during the coronavirus pandemic as long as basic hygiene practices are employed, Greenpeace USA Inc. said Monday in a statement endorsed by more than 100 health experts worldwide.
Single-use plastic isn’t inherently safer than reusable products, as the virus can remain infectious on both surfaces for varying lengths of time, it said, adding that 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 spokesperson said.
The EPA advises disposing of disinfectant wipes, gloves, masks, and other PPE in garbage bins and keeping it out of recycling bins.