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More masks than Jellyfish: Coronavirus waste exacerbates ocean pollution

“Soon there will be more masks than jellyfish in the water of the Mediterranean,” says Operation Mer Propre, a French non-profit that works on ocean clean-ups. A video posted on Facebook by Laurent Lambard of the clean-up charity showed disposable masks and gloves littering the bottom of a sea-bed off the coast of Antibes on the French Riveria.

Coronavirus-waste-ocean-pollution
Figure: Soon there will be more masks than jellyfish in the water of the Mediterranean. Courtesy: Collected

Divers have begun to notice more coronavirus waste- face masks, latex gloves and plastic bottles of hand sanitizer, Joffrey Peltier of the above-mentioned organization said and added that “While the quantities have not been overwhelming, pollution promises to come if nothing is done.”

Like him, many conservationists are raising alarm about growing ocean pollution caused by the increased waste created out of the coronavirus pandemic. They issued a warning saying that millions of people all over the world have donned disposable masks and gloves and, while it helps to slow the spread of the virus, they may be disposed of incorrectly.

As in other countries, coronavirus waste is contaminating the rivers in Bangladesh, a matter of grave concern for green activists campaigning for long to prevent rivers from being polluted and illegally occupied. It is worth mentioning that many rivers flowing through the country are either in death throes or have lost navigability due to various man-made hazards including widespread pollution from untreated industrial waste.

Hong Kong-based OceanAsia found dozens of masks in marine debris in the city’s Soko Islands. “On a beach about 100 meters long, we found about 70, OceanAsia’s Garry Stokes said, adding that thirty more masks were found a week later. “And that is on a deserted island in the middle of nowhere.”

In the United States, conservationists raised similar worries about growing plastic pollution because of COVID-19. According to a recent World Economic Forum Webinar, between the end of February and mid-April this year, more than a billion items of personal protective equipment were given out in the UK alone.

One study estimates that in the UK alone if every person used a single-use face mask a day for a year, it would create an additional 66,000 tons of contaminated waste and 57,000 tons of plastic packaging.

Improper disposal of medical waste has long posed a threat to oceans and waterways. More people may be using single-use plastics like takeout containers or non-reusable bags at grocery stores, Nick Mallos of Ocean Conservancy said on balancing public health with environmental impact.

A United Nations report from 2018 found that roughly 13 million metric tons of plastic pollute the ocean every year. Some 150 million tons of plastics are already circulating in the marine environment, says the webinar organized by the WEF. That pollution can harm biodiversity, the economy and health, the U.N. report says.

Mallos said Ocean Conservancy is working to track any potential increase in ocean waste during the pandemic. While the evidence is anecdotal thus far, it won’t be surprising to see an uptick once empirical data comes out, Mallos said.

He went on to say that “We have a perfect storm on top of what was already a deluge of plastics entering our oceans.”

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