The mask or gloves that save your life could end up killing the oceans

Gains in the battle against single-use plastics are being undone as the Covid-19 pandemic rages on, writes Sanet Oberholzer

05 July 2020 - 00:00 By Sanet Oberholzer
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Plastic waste pollution underwater since Covid-19 pandemic increases.
Plastic waste pollution underwater since Covid-19 pandemic increases.
Image: 123RF/vilainecrevette

A few weeks ago the world observed World Oceans Day — a day on which we're meant to celebrate and honour our oceans. Sadly, June 8 gave us even less cause for celebration this year.

As Covid-19 has spread across the globe, it's left in its wake havoc — on the health of people, on countries' economies and people's wellbeing and, despite initial hopes that the coronavirus pandemic might be good for Earth, on the environment.

In February, marine conservation agency Oceans Asia reported finding masses of surgical masks on the shoreline of the Soko Islands — a cluster of uninhabited islands off the coast of Lantau Island in Hong Kong, where the agency is carrying out research on plastic pollution.

As part of their research, a team from Oceans Asia has been visiting the Soko Islands twice a month to carry out surveys and analysis of the trash that accumulates on the islands' beaches.

According to a report published on the agency's website, by the end of February the team had started to notice that surgical masks were appearing alongside the mountains of marine pollution that usually pile up on the shoreline.

"Over time the team has seen the odd mask. However, this time they were all along the high-tide line and foreshore with new arrivals coming in on the current," reads the report.

"Due to the current Covid-19 [pandemic] 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."

At the time, it had only been a few weeks since people started wearing these masks in response to the spread of Covid-19. Now it seems this was a sign of things to come as coronavirus-related pollutants started appearing in other parts of the world.

After emerging from France's hard lockdown, the French clean-up nonprofit organisation Opération Mer Propre found plastic gloves and a bottle of hand sanitiser during its first ocean cleanup post-lockdown on May 18.

On May 23, the organisation reported its first sighting of disposable masks in the Mediterranean.

Commenting on these discoveries on a Facebook post, free diver and co-founder of Opération Mer Propre Laurent Lombard said it's imperative that people unite in solving this new pollution problem.

"Knowing that more than 2-billion disposable masks have been ordered [in France], soon there will be more masks than jellyfish in the waters of the Mediterranean! It is the responsibility of everyone in order to avoid this new pollution but also our elected officials, MPs and public authorities," Lombard wrote.


This is how long — in years — it will take these everyday household items to break down in the ocean:

10: Cigarette butts

20: Plastic bags

30: Takeaway coffee cups

200: Plastic straws and aluminium cans

450: Disposable diapers and plastic bottles

500: Coffee pods and toothbrushes

These are minimum estimates; the exact time will depend on the product and environment — and may be much longer.

Source: Statista 2018, World Wildlife Fund 2018

Pictures posted by the organisation showed a diver with a fistful of disposable masks and water-filled plastic gloves floating lifelessly in the expanse of the Mediterranean's blue waters.

But more than masks, gloves and plastic hand sanitiser bottles floating around in our oceans, what is becoming increasingly clear is that, in our fight against the Covid-19 pandemic, we're erasing what little gains have been made in the fight against plastic pollution.

News outlets from around the world have been reporting on measures taken by governments in response to Covid-19 that have included the repealing of single-use plastic bans or a pause in the effort to reduce the use of single-use plastics. In many places reusable items are currently prohibited in an attempt to limit cross-contamination.

Domestic flights have once again resumed in SA — available to a select few travellers and under strict hygiene measures that were implemented before welcoming back passengers. One of the new regulations in place as part of airports' reopening is that wrapping your check-in luggage is compulsory. The reason cited for this is the fear that luggage might be contaminated.

When is the last time you tried to use your environmentally friendly coffee cup at a restaurant or coffee shop? Even before SA entered its hard lockdown I was told that I can't use my reusable bamboo cup. "Coronavirus" was the explanation offered — an explanation that has permeated regulations and explanations around what counts as acceptable and unacceptable practices.

Let's be clear: I am not criticising companies for taking precautions to protect their staff and customers, I'm simply pointing out that a trend is emerging — one that favours the use of single-use plastics in the name of sanitisation.

Ocean Conservancy, a nonprofit environmental advocacy group, has warned that steps taken during the pandemic could set back efforts that have been made to curb the use of single-use plastics if temporary measures become permanent.

In a blog post on the group's website, George Leonard, a marine ecologist, and Nick Mallos, a senior director with the organisation, agreed that plastics have an important role to play in this pandemic, not least in providing protection to frontline workers.

"But," they add, "it is worrying that some members of the plastics industry are taking advantage of a climate of fear and uncertainty to actively suspend or roll back hard-won environmental measures to reduce plastic pollution."

The takeaway? The Covid-19 pandemic is adding to current levels of plastic pollution.

It's important to be safe and practise good hygiene, but this can be done without going to extremes. In many instances, regular hand-washing works better than wearing plastic gloves, and instead of disposable masks, reusable cloth masks are perfectly acceptable.

If you do use disposable masks, as far as possible, dispose of them properly to reduce the chance of them landing up in our oceans.

As with everything else we've come to experience during this pandemic, it's all about finding the balance in the chaos and doing your bit to lessen your impact on the environment and those around you.


1. Binning instead of recycling

When rubbish is transported to landfill, plastic blows away because it's lightweight. It eventually lands in drains and enters rivers and then the sea.

2. Littering

Litter dropped on the street doesn't stay there. Rainwater and wind carries plastic waste into streams and rivers, and through drains. Drains lead to the ocean. Careless and improper waste disposal is a big contributor - illegal dumping of waste adds greatly to the plastic surge in our seas.

3. Down the drain

Many of the products we use daily are flushed down toilets, including wet wipes, cotton buds and sanitary products. Microfibres are released into waterways when we wash our clothes in the washing machine. These are too small to be filtered out by waste water plants and end up being consumed by small marine species, eventually even ending up in our food chain. Microbeads in rinse-off cosmetic and cleaning products also wash down the sink and out into the ocean.

Source: World Wildlife Fund.

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