The COVID-19 pandemic has not only created hardships for millions of people around the world, but it has also been a huge contributor to pollution to the world’s oceans and seas. Gloves and masks, which have become the most important personal protective equipment (PPE) to combat the virus, have littered landfills and blown away to oceans and seas. The production of single-use PPE has drastically ramped up during the pandemic, with the Environment, Science & Technology journal estimating that 129 billion face masks and 65 billion gloves are being used each month. In many places around the world, basic waste collection does not exist to manage large volumes of waste, so pandemic protective equipment waste has been finding its way downstream on beaches and in the ocean.
As a result, some of the world’s most coveted beach vacation destinations, like Cannes or St. Tropez, have been left with massive amounts of waste in their oceans and seas from the abandoned masks and gloves. The increased amount of pollutants in the water have prompted sea cleanup operations from different types of ocean and sea conservation organizations. Knowing that ocean animals like sea turtles often feed on things like plastic bags and balloons that are in the marine environment, conservationists are worried about a similar type of feeding behavior in aquatic animals, with masks and gloves that end up in the ocean.
Laurent Lombard, a diver and founder of the nonprofit Opération Mer Propre (Operation Clean Sea), have found noticeable percentages of discarded PPE and hand sanitizer bottles in their sea cleanup operations. COVID-19 waste retrieved during the most recent sea cleanups was estimated to be approximately 5% of the total waste Opération Mer Propre usually collects, but the organization and conservationists are worried this could escalate rapidly. Ocean conservation organizations hope that the power of social media will help raise awareness to this cause and encourage people to not litter their non-recyclable protective equipment.