Plastic pollution in the oceans likely to be 30% worse than one year ago, study shows

  • 10/23/2020 11:51 am ET Stacy Whittle, Mauricio Carrillo

Courtesy of Roger Millan / @rogermillancasas

The ocean has become yet another victim of the global coronavirus crisis. According to research published by the Environmental Science & Technology magazine, plastic pollution in the oceans is on pace to experience a 30 percent increase from levels seen from just over a year ago.

The cause? PPE face masks and people’s carelessness about how to manage plastic waste has led to an increase in COVID-related litter.

With over a million deaths and more than 40 million people infected globally, the COVID-19 pandemic has turned the planet upside down. The unemployment rate continues to grow, economies are spiraling downward, and people are facing growing dissatisfaction with the way their governments are handling the disease.

As the United Nations said in a recent article regarding plastic contamination, historical data suggests that “75 percent of the used masks, as well as other pandemic-related waste, will end up in landfills or floating in the seas.”

Enough face masks to cover Switzerland

Close up photo of a person wearing a medical face mask


What is the real impact of discarded PPP on the health of oceans? Studies show that 129 billion masks are used every month. As the founder of the environmental literacy organization SoulBuffalo, Dave Ford,  says, “there are enough face masks to cover Switzerland each month.”

Do the math. The UN says that over two-thirds of masks will end up in the oceans, which means that approximately 95 billion PPE will add to the plastic pollution problem. In addition, studies show that with pre-COVID waste levels, oceans would have more plastic by weight than fish by 2025. Plastics pollution related to coronavirus would make it happen a lot sooner.

It can take up to 1,000 years for plastic to degrade or decompose. This is terrifying.  Keeping the Earth healthy should be the goal for every human on the planet.

The plastic pollution crisis: The future is now!

Paolo Margari / Flickr / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

“Plastic pollution was already one of the greatest threats to our planet before the coronavirus outbreak,” says Pamela Coke-Hamilton, UNCTAD’s director of international trade. However, “the sudden boom in the daily use of certain products to keep people safe and stop the disease is making things much worse.”

Researchers don’t underestimate the importance of plastics to the prevention of COVID-19 transmissions. However, Joana C. Prata, Ph.D. Researcher at the University of Aveiro stated in a recent study, “it is imperative not to undermine recent progress made in the sustainable use of plastics.”

In the study, “COVID-19 Pandemic Repercussions on the Use and Management of Plastics,” she and her colleagues’ highlight the fact that “there is a need to assess alternatives that allow reductions of PPE and reinforce awareness on the proper public use and disposal.”

They also acknowledge that further measures would be needed once the pandemic is over. “Finally, assessment of contamination and impacts of plastics driven by the pandemic will be required once the outbreak ends.”

Doing what it takes to make a change

hand with glove holding globe

Unsplash / Fateme Alaie

Initiatives such as #TheGloveChallenge and #PickUpYourMask on social media and Circular Economy, a more political approach, are essential ways to keep the Earth healthy and to secure a future for our children that we can all be proud of.

So here’s where you come in. Al Gore’s Climate Reality Project organize a live event on October 24, 2020, at 1:00 PM ET, called: “Your Vote, Your World.”

The event will be an opportunity to find out what you can do to rescue our planet. You will hear from activists, musicians, cultural icons, and artists about why we should vote for Earth on November 3rd. Don Cheadle, Al Gore, and musical guests Dave Matthews and Ozomatli are part of the exciting lineup.

The future of Mother Earth is at stake. We can no longer look away and cover our eyes. It is our civic duty to GOTV to ensure a healthy future for all.

Update, Oct. 26: You can view Your Vote Your World here:

This article was produced in partnership with Earth Day Network. In a democracy, every voice matters. Click here to pledge to vote on environmental progress in 2020.

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