COVID-19 Masks Are Polluting Beaches and Oceans
As if the Texas-sized gyre of plastic floating around the Pacific Ocean was not troubling enough, now there is a new scourge polluting the world's waters: face masks and sanitary gloves.
In an effort to clean up the Mediterranean Sea, divers from the French non-profit, Opération Mer Propre (Operation Clean Sea) found dozens of gloves, masks and bottles of hand sanitizer beneath the waves of the Mediterranean, mixed in with the usual litter of disposable cups and aluminum cans, according to The Guardian.
While the amount of personal protective equipment found in the Mediterranean was admittedly small, the uptick in pollution from those items signals an ominous trend. Disposable masks, for instance, may feel like soft cotton, but they're almost all made from non-biodegradable material such as polypropylene. That means when the non-biodegradable material is discarded into a storm drain, it empties out into the rivers and seas, as the CBC reported.
"With a lifespan of 450 years, these masks are an ecological timebomb given their lasting environmental consequences for our planet," Éric Pauget, a French politician, wrote last month in a letter to Emmanuel Macron, calling on the French president to do more to address the environmental consequences of disposable masks, as The Guardian reported.
As EuroNews reported, land-based activity accounts for 80 percent of ocean pollution, with 50 percent a direct result of single-use plastics. Now, we must act to avoid making the situation worse, say experts from environmental non-profit City to Sea in the UK. That's a tall order as efforts to curtail single-use plastics and plastic bags have been put on hold due to concerns about hygiene. The Centers for Disease Control's recent recommendations for reopening offices even advocated a dramatic increase in single-use plastics, arguing that communal snacks and coffee should be replaced by individually wrapped items, as EcoWatch reported.
"It's the promise of pollution to come if nothing is done," said Joffrey Peltier of Opération Mer Propre, to The Guardian.
That trend is on display in Hong Kong, where face masks piled up on beaches and nature trails, posing threats to marine life and wildlife habitats.
"We only have had masks for the last six to eight weeks, in a massive volume ... we are now seeing the effect on the environment," said Gary Stokes, founder of the environmental group Oceans Asia, in March, as Reuters reported.
Stokes cited the example of Hong Kong's isolated and uninhabited Soko islands, south of its international airport. He claimed to have initially found 70 discarded masks on a small stretch of beach and when he came back a week later, there were more than 30 new ones.
"That was quite alarming for us," he said.
In France, authorities have ordered two billion disposable masks, said Laurent Lombard of Opération Mer Propre. "Knowing that … soon we'll run the risk of having more masks than jellyfish in the Mediterranean," he wrote on social media alongside a video of a dive showing algae-entangled masks and soiled gloves in the sea near Antibes, according to The Guardian.
Opération Mer Propre would like to see the images of the debris prompt people to use reusable masks and wash their hands more often rather than wear latex gloves. "With all the alternatives, plastic isn't the solution to protect us from Covid. That's the message," said Peltier, as The Guardian reported.
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Jean-Marc Neveu and Olivier Civil never expected to find themselves battling against disposable mask pollution.
When they founded their recycling start-up Plaxtil in 2017, it was textile waste they set their sights on. The project developed a process that turned fabrics into a new recyclable material they describe as "ecological plastic."
Mounting Piles of Waste<p>It is not only the streets of Chatellerault where pandemic pollution is piling-up, but also the world's beaches and oceans. Once there, they can take up to 450 years to degrade and disappear.</p><p>Esther Röling, co-organizer of the annual Adventure Clean Up Challenge held on Hong Kong Island, has seen this waste firsthand. In October the sports challenge pitted teams against one another in a competition to remove trash from 13 hard-to-reach coastal areas around the city.</p><p>They find tons of both disposable and reusable masks, said Röling. "You wonder how it ended up there. Was it just thrown on the ground? Or was it in a garbage bag that broke open?"</p><p>Almost 10,000 kilometers away in Antibes on the sunny French Riviera, it's a similar picture. For the past few months, divers and clean-up volunteers working with an ocean clean-up non-profit called Operation Mer Propre have been collecting an increasing number of masks found on land and in the sea.</p><p>"Since the beginning of the lockdown when we started to count, we've reached 800, 900, [and now in total] 1000 masks," said co-founder Joko Peltier. </p><p>According to <a href="https://unctad.org/news/growing-plastic-pollution-wake-covid-19-how-trade-policy-can-help" target="_blank">UN estimates</a>, up to 75% of all coronavirus-related plastic could end up as waste in oceans and landfills.</p>
The Limits of Recycling<p>Yet not all are convinced the recycling of this waste is possible on a global scale. </p><p>"What those citizen groups are doing is really beneficial but once they collect it, it should just go to a landfill or an incinerator. They shouldn't necessarily expect it to get recycled," said Jonathan Krones, an industrial ecologist and visiting assistant professor of environmental studies at Boston College.</p><p>That's because mask recycling programs like Plaxtil are few and far between and most don't have the benefit of a readily adaptable production process. </p><p>Even in countries with solid recycling infrastructure, he says, the system is designed to separate out specific types of waste like bottles or cardboard.</p><p>"I imagine that it would be technically feasible to develop a separation process to filter out masks, but there simply aren't enough of them to make that economical," he said.</p><p>Collection is a big hurdle, he adds. Since each mask only weighs a fraction of a gram and they're scattered on roads or mixed with other trash, it is difficult and costly. </p><p>"You need a lot of raw material of the right quality to make investing in the recycling technology and the recycling system worthwhile," he said.<span></span><br></p>
Hemp, Sugar Cane and Sustainable Alternatives<p>Some projects are instead addressing the material used to make masks.</p><p>French company Geochanvre have created a mask made primarily from hemp, while in Australia, researchers at the Queensland University of Technology are experimenting with a disposable product made from agricultural waste. </p><p>Biodegradable options are exciting alternatives to reduce the fossil fuels needed for the creation of plastic-based masks, said Krones, but they don't absolve the wearer from the responsibility of what happens afterwards. </p><p>Bio-based masks often need their own composing solutions, he explains, because in landfill they can produce high amounts of the greenhouse gas methane when anaerobic bacteria feeds on the organic material. Methane is known to be significantly more potent than carbon dioxide.</p><p>"I think as long as we have in our mind that we want to have disposability, we're going to have to wrestle with a variety of different sorts of environmental tradeoffs," he said, adding that reusable, fabric masks are the best option available to most people.</p><p>Precimask is developing a clear face covering with an optional visor made from hard plastic, designed to be long-lasting.<br></p><p>Air enters either side of the cheeks through a technology normally found in pool filters and car exhaust systems, said company spokeswoman Juliette Chambet.</p><p>"We wanted to make ceramic-based filters that would be washable and cleanable, which would allow them to be reused as many times as desired without having to buy a new consumable or produce waste," she said. </p><p>Ultimately, encouraging mask wearers to think about the entire lifecycle of a mask is key, explains Neveu. </p><p>"We want people who put on the masks to realize that they are also responsible for the waste, he said. "It's not inevitable that this [pandemic] will become an environmental catastrophe.</p><p><em>Reposted with permission from </em><em><a href="https://www.dw.com/en/covid-19-recycling-pollution-trash-pandemic/a-55707817" target="_blank">Deutsche Welle</a>.</em><a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/r/entryeditor/2649032193#/" target="_self"></a></p>
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