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Discarded Face Masks Flooding Oceans, Reports Find

Bob Kronovetrealty
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By Jorge Casuso

August 6, 2021 -- More masks and gloves have been removed from Santa Monica Bay beaches over the past year than common items such as glass bottles, according to data from Heal The Bay's Coastal Cleanups.

In July 2020, the Santa Monica-based non profit began tracking "the impact of the improper disposal" of personal protective equipment (PPE) -- most of it single-use -- on Los Angeles County's coast, Heal the Bay officials said.

Face masks on the beach (Courtesy OceansAsia
Face masks on the beach (Images courtesy of OceansAsia)

Over the past year, volunteers have removed 4,808 masks and gloves in LA County, and an additional 27,530 masks and gloves from beaches, waterways and neighborhoods across the state.

"Through our data, we can clearly see the effects of the pandemic on our waste stream," said Emely Garcia, senior manager of Heal the Bay's Beach and Watershed programs.

"In the first year of tracking this item, PPE became one of the top 10 items found by our volunteers, surpassing common items like glass bottles," Garcia said.

City officials report that the amount of trash picked up by its Public Works crews on Santa Monica beaches dropped during the coronavirus lockdown, but picked up as businesses began reopening.

Public Works' Resource Recovery and Recycling (RRR) does not analyze the amount of PPE in the trash, officials said.

The impact of the COVID-19 emergency and widespread mandates requiring the use of face masks is being chronicled in oceans across the globe.

According to a December 2020 report published by Hong Kong-based ocean conservation group OceansAsia, nearly 1.56 billion face masks likely entered the world's oceans last year.

The group's report titled “Masks on the Beach: The Impact of COVID-19 on Marine Plastic Pollution” estimates this will likely result in an additional 4,680 to 6,240 metric tons of marine plastic pollution.

Face masks on the beach

"These masks will take as long as 450 years to break down, slowly turning into micro plastics while negatively impacting marine wildlife and ecosystems," the report said.

The COVID-19 emergency has also triggered a shift in daily behaviors that boosted plastic pollution, the report found.

“Hygiene concerns and greater reliance on take-away food has led to increased use of plastics, particularly plastic packaging,” says Gary Stokes, Director of Operations of OceansAsia.

“Meanwhile, a number of measures designed to reduce plastic consumption, like single-use plastic bag bans, have been delayed, paused, or rolled back,” Stokes said.

Officials at Ocean Conservancy, which issued its own report in March titled "Pandemic Pollution: The Rising Tide of Plastic," echoed OceanAsia's findings.

The shift to delivery and curbside pick-up dramatically increased single-use plastic bags, food and beverage containers, and other single-use plastics, said Ocean Conservancy CEO Janis Searles Jones.

The group's report analyzed items found from a cleanup where volunteers removed 107,219 PPE items from beaches and waterways worldwide in the second half of 2020.

"The pandemic has dramatically increased the use of certain types of plastic products, notably PPE," Searles Jones wrote in the introduction to the report.

Items Ocean Conservancy clean-up volunteers found and logged included face masks, gloves, face shields and sanitizing wipes, according to the report.

Face masks accounted for 81 percent of the PPE items encountered by volunteers, the report found.

Ocean Conservancy's report cites researchers at the Centre for Environmental and Marine Studies at the University of Aviero in Portugal who estimated that worldwide, 129 billion face masks and 65 billion gloves were used every month of the pandemic.

Assemblymember Richard Bloom, who has sponsored bills curbing plastic pollution in California's ocean, said he is not surprised by the findings.

“Over the last decade, plastic microfibers from clothing, skin care products and disposable wipes has been added to the ever-expanding list of plastic pollution in our oceans," Bloom said.

"Now, PPE pollution makes things that much worse," said Bloom, a former Santa Monica mayor. "The microfibers in these products are a known pollutant.

"Protecting ourselves with PPE and protecting our environment do not need to be mutually exclusive," he said. "If we do our part, we can keep ourselves and our environment safe as we move through the pandemic.”

Heal the Bay will host a Coastal Cleanup Saturday, September 18. For more information click here

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