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PPE polluting waterways, adding to world's existing plastic problem

Posted at 2:16 PM, Jul 14, 2020
and last updated 2020-07-14 14:18:29-04

A new health hazard is washing up on shores around the world.

“They found a lot of it in Italy. They found a lot of PPE in beaches of Japan and Southeast Asia,” said senior scientist Jennifer Brandon, Ph.D. about personal protective equipment, or PPE. “We’re already finding thousands of gloves and masks as the pandemic continues.”

Brandon believes more people are using and also improperly disposing of these single-use plastics and says the litter can last several lifetimes.

“I would not be shocked if it’s going to be in the hundreds of thousands in gloves and masks in the next years,” she said.

Brandon says with grocery stores no longer allowing reusable bags and restaurants serving to-go orders in Styrofoam containers, this is adding to the problem.

This swell of plastic pollution has a chain effect, impacting animals and humans.

“That plastic is going to get eaten by animals and those animals are what you eat,” Brandon said. “Sometimes it can break down small enough, it even gets into our water supply and sea salts.”

Experts say 30 billion pounds of disposable plastic is dumped into the ocean every year. Now, that number is expected to rise even more due to PPE waste.

“We expect that plastic pollution will outweigh fish in the ocean if we don’t take care quick action to prevent that from happening,” said Shelley Luce, president of Heal the Bay, a nonprofit with the mission of keeping water clear and clean.

“We do beach clean ups year-round and we generally get 700 to 800 people coming out early on a Saturday morning,” she said.

With social distancing orders and many beaches closed due to COVID-19, large group gatherings are no longer allowed in some areas.

So, Luce is now encouraging people to clean up what she calls “COVID waste” on their own or within their social bubble.

“You can do a cleanup in your neighborhood,” she said. “Pick that trash up off the streets because you know where that's going to go, into a storm drain and out into the ocean.”

Luce says there are simple solutions for this worldwide problem: properly dispose of PPE or wear a cloth mask, both of which can help stop the spread of coronavirus without creating an environmental hazard.

Global Coronavirus Tracker:

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Data from The Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins University.