Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the amount of face masks and gloves used by the world population has seen a surge. Be it for domestic use or medical use, they have become an essential part of everybody’s lives. But, this is a major addition to the vast amounts of plastic in the oceans which threatens marine life, environmentalists warn.

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Andrew Cuomo, Governor of New York, issued an executive order on Wednesday, which said that New Yorkers must wear a mask when out in public, effective this weekend. The CDC advises wearing cloth masks because coronavirus can be spread by infected people who are not showing symptoms.

Although Surgeon General Jerome Adams has warned Americans to refrain from buying medical masks needed by healthcare front-line employees, it hasn’t done much to prevent the rise in single-use masks and latex gloves being used and disposed.

Pictures of crumpled masks littering the environment were shared on social media. If the underpaid front-liners such as sanitation workers and grocery staff aren’t picking them up, their destination will be the ocean, thanks to the wind and washed down drains. Surgical masks are woven using non-biodegradable and non-recyclable materials like plastics and polypropylene, increasing the damage caused to the environment.

According to the Ocean Conservancy, at least 600 different ocean species are threatened by this pollution, as they depend on plastic debris, confusing it for real food. Not only that, but around a billion people also consume seafood as the primary protein source, causing a major threat to human health as well.

The initial signs of warning of this worrisome situation came in February when OceansAsia, a conservation group posted a tragic photo of a Hong Kong beach, where they discovered dozens of surgical masks during research on marine debris and microplastics. These coronavirus masks are an addition to Hong Kong’s marine trash issue which is mainly caused by mainland China.

Gary Stokes-co-founder of OceansAsia holding up a string of masks from the ocean.

According to Tracey Read, the founder of group Plastic Free Seas, Hong Kong, people should think not only about protecting themselves, but also protecting everybody else. She added that not disposing the mask properly and causing harm to the environment is a very selfish thing to do.

In the United States, Ms. Maria Algarra, founder of Clean This Beach Up in Miami, Florida, started the hashtag campaign #TheGloveChallenge, inviting people to share photos in order to track littered gloves and to raise awareness on the crisis. In response to the challenge, she has been sent over 1200 pictures of gloves- from many parts of the world including Spain, Italy, New Zealand, France, Germany, and Portugal.

Ms. Algarra emphasized the effect of plastic waste on both the ocean and dry land. “It not only causes the risk to wildlife but to other people who could get infected, our sanitation workers and other shoppers for example, when gloves are left in carts. She further added, “With the glove challenge, it’s about education. That’s the key for us to do better as a community and as humans. We can’t expect people to change their ways if they don’t know what they’re doing wrong.”

 

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So, in this pandemic situation where everyone is going through a difficult time, people should be more responsible for managing their waste and not cause further harm to the environment.

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