Octopus hiding under a facemaks

Have We Reached the Crossroads in the Plastics Crisis?

The amount of PPE entering the environment each month is staggering. We all have a role in stopping it.

Pooja Chhabria has produced a video for the BBC showing an increase in PPE pollution. The personal protective equipment we’ve turned to for safety is now in our waterways and oceans, washing up on our beaches.

Gary Stokes, founder of Oceans Asia, holds up a string of face masks that he collected on the beach. Footage from Laurent Lombard and Operation Mer Propre shows a face mask with a small octopus hiding beneath it. And a collage of images from beaches around the world show that this is a global trend.

Octopus hiding under a facemaks
Laurent Lombard / Operation Mer Propre, Still from BBC

Doug Cress, the Vice President of Conservation at the Ocean Conservancy outlines the scale of the problem:

‘It’s important to understand we had a tremendously grave crisis before the pandemic even started in terms of plastic waste in the ocean. And now you take the global pandemic. At the current rate, we’re putting 129 billion face masks into the environment every single month, 65 billion plastic gloves every single month. A significant portion of those would be disposed of improperly and wind up in the ocean.

The glove or the mask that you take off and you casually disregard because you think it was safe for that day could easily be the glove or the mask that kills a whale. So understand that the simple human act of indifference or of safety may have a tremendously deleterious effect on the other end.’

Doug Cress, Ocean Conservancy

That’s a sentiment shared by Lara Maiklem, author of the Sunday Times bestseller ‘Mudlark’ and someone who spends a lot of time on the Thames foreshore. She recently shared this on Instagram:

‘I did an interview a couple of weeks ago where the journalist was asking about how the modern objects I’ve found in the river have changed over the years. I told her what I’d seen and predicted that in a few weeks time the foreshore would be littered with latex gloves. Sadly I was right. My first visit to the foreshore since Lockdown and I found this little lot washed up in a patch no larger than a tennis court. If you’re using gloves, please think about where they might end up…’

Nick Mallos, the senior director of Ocean Conservancy’s Trash Free Seas programme, recently wrote in The Hill about the complementary roles that individuals and governments need to play to tackle this ongoing crisis.

We can throw away our PPE at home rather than use an overflowing public one. That reduces the risk of it becoming fugitive plastic. And we can refuse straws and plastic cutlery when getting food out and about.

Local and national governments need to resurrect the bans on single-use plastics that have been paused or delayed during the coronavirus pandemic. They need to pass legislation that will hold the manufacturers of these items responsible. And they need to continue providing support for recycling programmes that are facing a surge in demand.

‘As we navigate the ongoing pandemic, we are at a crossroads: continue with business as usual despite colossal upheavals to our plastic waste reality, or take this opportunity to change the plastics paradigm and build better, stronger waste systems. The choice is obvious.’

Nick Mallos, Ocean Conservancy
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