COVID-19 is leading to a new kind of pandemic: ocean pollution.
Face masks are keeping people from contracting the worst pandemic in 100 years, but they’re coming at a cost.
According to the Hong Kong-based conservation group OceanAsia, 1.5 billion face masks are now in the world’s oceans. These masks bring potentially devastating impacts on wildlife not seen before.
“The proliferation of masks in the environment reveals weaknesses in our waste management systems and irresponsible practices/habits on the part of individuals,” the report notes. “It also serves to illuminate an issue that has been accumulating for decades – unchecked plastic pollution contaminating our environment. The accumulation of plastic in the environment is not a recent phenomenon, but it is one that is becoming increasingly problematic and
unavoidable – encountering plastic debris on a visit to the beach is almost inescapable.”
The group says the masks account for 6,800 tons of plastic pollution in already plastic-polluted oceans. Mask loops pose entanglement threats to all manner of marine life. Animals are already being found entangled, the report notes. It cites a pufferfish discovered on a Miami beach in August strangled by a mask. A penguin discovered on a Brazilian beach in September had a mask in its stomach.
The Trouble With Single Use Masks
“Single-use face masks are made from a variety of meltblown plastics and are difficult to recycle due to both composition and risk of contamination and infection,” the report says.
“These masks enter our oceans when they are littered or otherwise improperly discarded, when waste management systems are inadequate or non-existent, or when these systems become overwhelmed due to increased volumes of waste.”
The report urges people to switch to reusable face masks whenever possible. In most cases, single-use masks cannot be recycled, OceanAsia says.
“The unfortunate reality is that marine plastic pollution poses an existential threat to marine wildlife and to ecosystems,” the report notes. “It is a problem that will not go away on its own. Without considerable effort on our part, oceans will continue to fill with plastic and do so at an accelerating pace.”