Face Masks and Gloves Are Polluting Oceans, Washing up on Beaches

by Jennifer Shea

Environmentalists are sounding the alarm about what is known as “Covid waste.” Gloves, face masks and hand sanitizer increasingly litter the oceans and beaches of the world.

The environmentalists say they see risks due to the recent uptick in the use of these products. They worry that plastic coronavirus-fighting materials will lead to a sudden surge in ocean pollution.

Disposable Masks and Gloves Are a Problem

“With all the alternatives, plastic isn’t the solution to protect us from Covid. That’s the message,” Joffrey Peltier of the French nonprofit Opération Mer Propre told The Guardian.

The group encourages people to wear reusable masks. They also suggest hand washing instead of using gloves.

Even before the pandemic, environmentalists and marine biologists worried about accelerating plastic pollution. UN Environment estimates that 13 million tons of plastic get into the oceans each year. 

In Hong Kong, marine conservation group OceansAsia has been finding face masks littering uninhabited beaches. 

“We’re finding them everywhere,” OceansAsia’s Gary Stokes told The Guardian. “Ever since society started wearing masks, the cause and effects are being seen on the beaches.”

Deadly Food

They say it’s just a matter of time before porpoises and dolphins start eating the masks, thinking they’re food. Many could die as a result.

That’s not the only cause for concern. Discarded masks, gloves and other PPE pose a risk to fellow humans, Stars and Stripes reported.

“Anyone on quarantine who has either tested positive or may potentially have coronavirus creates a contact hazard for anything they have touched,” Senior Master Sgt. Charles Patterson told Stars and Stripes. Patterson is the superintendent for operations and engineering in the 374th Civil Engineering Squadron.

Masks and gloves can also clog storm drains, causing polluted flooding. 

Biologists have already found one victim of PPE pollution: a Magellanic penguin. The penguin ate an entire face mask left behind by beachgoers in Sao Sebastiao, Brazil. It died after the mask became tangled in its stomach.