In this May 21, 2020 photo, an employee works in the production of N95 face masks at a factory that produces 40,000 N95 masks per day, in Mexico City. (ALFREDO ESTRELLA / AFP)
While masks and gloves have been shown to reduce the risk of transmitting the coronavirus, the widespread increase in single-use personal protective equipment, or PPE, is worsening the problem of plastic pollution, conservationists said.
Julie Hellec, 41, a volunteer from Operation Mer Propre, a French nonprofit ocean conservation organization, said the plastic pollution stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic has become "a huge problem".
The organization, which has 60 volunteers and is divided into separate groups for the oceans and the shores, picks up litter along the Cote d'Azur, the Mediterranean coastal strip in southeastern France, every week.
People should realize if you throw something on the ground, it can end up in the ocean
Julie Hellec, volunteer from Operation Mer Propre, a French nonprofit ocean conservation organization
Hellec joined the organization last October. She said disposable masks and gloves had never been found before the outbreak, but recently, countless such items have begun appearing on the shore and in the sea.
"People should realize if you throw something on the ground, it can end up in the ocean," she said.
Around 8 million metric tons of plastics enter the ocean every year, according to a study published by the journal Science in 2015. And one of the reasons is careless and improper waste disposal.
Plastic can be washed out to sea from beaches, streets and highways. It can flow out through drains into streams and rivers, eventually ending up in the stomach of marine animals, even in our food chain.
"Animals in the sea will mix waste with food, which can kill them," said Hellec, adding it is important for everyone to "open their eyes" to see the consequences of sea pollution.
According to a report from the Sea Turtle Conservancy, over 1 million marine animals－including mammals, fish, turtles and birds－are killed each year due to plastic debris in the oceans.
Plastic has a life-span of approximately 450 years. It can shrink into smaller pieces of plastic called microplastics, which have become a major marine pollution source that also put people's health in danger.
It is known that the novel coronavirus is primarily transmitted between people through respiratory droplets and contact routes. This means the use of face coverings has been encouraged, and even made mandatory in some countries.
While importance has been stressed on the proper ways to wear masks, guidance for disposal of single-use PPE is unclear.
Environmental experts say that even if we put them in bins, they could still end up in rivers and oceans, or end up filling up more landfill sites.
Hellec said one possible solution is for authorities to take action to collect used PPE, no matter what the setting. She also suggested that people use washable masks.
"A simple gesture that not throwing a glove or a mask on the ground could save the planet," she said. "And it would be better to use reusable masks.
"It's time to realize if we don't protect oceans, we are slowly killing ourselves."
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