PPE meant to protect during global pandemic, is affecting marine life when improperly discarded

An apparent ‘his and her’ face masks lay in the sand near 62nd Place in the Peninsula neighborhood of Long Beach in March 2021. (Richard Grant | Signal Tribune)

Living under a global pandemic has altered every part of life as it was previously known, its impacts extending to our environment.

Society as a whole largely adapted to wearing protective masks or shields to help slow the spread of COVID-19 and plastic gloves while touching surfaces outside of their homes.

However, when not discarded properly, some of these items made to protect the general population have been washing up on beaches in the United States, affecting marine life.

The Ocean Conservancy Report

According to a March 2021 report by Ocean Conservancy, a U.S. nonprofit focused on removing trash from the ocean, volunteers who attended beach cleanups collected 107,219 individual pieces of personal protective equipment (PPE) globally in 2020, the specific documentation starting in late July. 

In California, the amount of PPE collected at beach cleanups exceeds 5,000 pieces, according to a breakdown by state in the report. 

PPE that has been found includes face masks (often made of polypropylene, polyurethane, polycarbonate, or polyester) gloves (latex, polyvinyl chloride) and sanitizing wipes (polyethylene terephthalate, polyester).

Infograph by Karla M. Enriquez

However, a press release published in conjunction with the March report states that the over 107,000 collected pieces of PPE may be a “vast undercount.” It is noted that PPE was recorded as “personal hygiene” or “other trash” between January and July 2020 and that category was three times higher than was recorded the previous three years during the same time period.

Additionally, a survey of more than 200 International Coastal Cleanup partners found that 30% of respondents reported not recording PPE data, supporting the idea that the current number of PPE reported in beach cleanups may be higher.

Locally, however, there hasn’t been an increase in pollution observed according to Corry Forester, Superintendent of Beach Maintenance in Long Beach.

“We haven’t really seen an increase in that during the closures,” Forester said, noting that a lot of people were actively using the bike and pedestrian paths even during the COVID closure until a hard closure was enacted.

Nancy Wallace, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) marine debris program director, has been hearing anecdotal reports from partners and stakeholders that are doing beach clean ups in other places around the nation about the increased incidence of poorly discarded PPE. 

“It’s not surprising in the sense that anything that could end up in the marine environment often does and you know that these items are being used more and more,” Wallace said. 

Wallace added that the NOAA’s Marine Debris Program, an initiative to track the amounts and types of debris in the environment, has added PPE to their data category and is looking to get more data.

Because of the pandemic, the program has not been out in full force over the last year, Wallace noted, pointing to the Ocean Conservancy’s data collection efforts. 

The Ocean Conservancy’s data collection efforts revealed that more than 80% of survey respondents reported that face masks were the most common form of PPE found in their clean ups.

Almost half of those surveyed reported that the majority of PPE found was single-use or disposable.

Harm caused by PPE and plastics on marine life

Additionally, 37% of respondents reported seeing PPE submerged in bodies of water.

“Many of them are made up of plastics, similar to so many of these things that we use every day and so they’ll have similar impacts,” Wallace said. “A lot of these items […] won’t ever fully degrade, but they break down in smaller and smaller pieces.”

Infograph by Karla M. Enriquez

These forms of PPE will have a similar impact that other pieces of plastic have on wildlife, according to Wallace.

“They can be ingested by wildlife, which can […] cause physical impact of them feeling full and not being able to actually take in the food that they need,” Wallace said. 

One of the other impacts noted by Wallace was the possible absorption of chemical contaminants associated with plastics into the bodies of marine animals. 

There are also the physical hazards such as entanglement, which Wallace noted has been observed.

“That’s something that’s very concerning as well so you know certainly physical impacts to our wildlife,” Wallace said.

According to the California Coastal Commission, debris entanglements have been recorded for more than 275 marine species in the U.S., including 46% of the species being marine mammals.

What can you do to help while following COVID-19 protocols?

PPE is still an important method that helps curb the spread of COVID-19 and can be used while still helping to protect marine life by simply taking a few cautionary steps.

“The number one thing people can do is dispose of these items properly, making sure that they’re putting them in the trash can, that has a lid that is not overflowing,” Wallace said.

This step is important Wallace said to make sure these items are disposed of safely and properly.

The Ocean Conservancy recommends individuals cut the loops of masks before disposing to prevent entanglement.

Additionally, used PPE that is discarded at home should be put in a garbage bag that is tied or sealed to prevent its contents from falling out. 

Keeping a trash bag in a vehicle to dispose of PPE while individuals are not home is also a recommended step as is properly disposing of sanitation wipes as opposed to flushing them down a toilet.

For those interested in keeping local beaches and the community at large clean, clean ups have been scheduled widely for Earth Week and include:

Seal Beach Cleanup on Saturday, April 17 hosted by Save our Beach.

•Community Clean Up on Saturday, April 17 focused on Orange Avenue between South Street and Del Amo Avenue hosted by Al Austin. To attend, send an email here.

•Wetland Warriors Clean Up on Saturday, April 17 from 10 a.m. to noon.

Spaces are limited, therefore advanced registration is required and can be done by calling 562)570-1749 within 48 hours before the clean up.

Fore more information about the Ocean Conservancy and its March 2020 report visit https://oceanconservancy.org/

To learn more about NOAA and their efforts, visit their website https://www.noaa.gov/

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