Ever since the coronavirus outbreak, we have become all too familiar with the bright blue latex gloves and white masks that keep appearing on busy sidewalks, in supermarket parking lots, or peppering the side of roads. The problem has steadily worsened as more and more people turn to disposable masks and gloves to help stop the spread of the novel coronavirus – but lack the proper disposal directions. As it is still unclear how long the virus is known to remain on surfaces, it’s left to sanitation workers and essential frontline employees, to eventually pick them up. In addition to potentially being a biohazard, used masks and gloves are neither recyclable nor biodegradable and have found their way to our already depleting oceans. Disposable masks and gloves are adding to the plastic pollution threatening the health of our ocean and marine life, environmentalists warn.
Dr Teale Phelps Bondaroff, founder of OceansAsia.Org said, “Face masks are made from a number of different materials, but they very often contain plastics, like polypropylene. Plastic pollution has a serious impact on marine ecosystems and species. Some sources estimate that more than 8 million pieces of plastic enter our oceans daily! And once in the marine environment, plastic does not disappear, but rather breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces (microplastic), which wreaks havoc on the environment and animals.” He further added, “The responsibility falls on everyone to step up and be responsible with plastics and our oceans. At an individual level, this includes reducing plastic consumption as much as possible, especially when it comes to unnecessary single use items, and calling on governments and companies to take efforts to reduce plastic consumption. The World Health Organization recommends that masks be carefully removed and disposed of in a closed bin, but additional local procedures may be in place, and should be followed.”
(Photos: Naomi Brannan) 📷 pic.twitter.com/a6VwrE5OPl
— OceansAsia (@oceansasia1) March 1, 2020
There is also a human health risk from plastic entering the food chain with nearly a billion people around the world consuming seafood as their primary source of protein. Used masks and gloves add to an already significant problem: At least 8m tons of plastic end up in the oceans every year, making up 80 percent of all marine debris, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
In the US, Maria Algarra, started a hashtag campaign on March 23 called #TheGloveChallenge, asking people to send photos as a way to track littered gloves and raise awareness of the issue. Algarra founded Clean This Beach Up last year and since then the movement has grown to 1,600 people, volunteering to pick up trash on beaches.
As part of the campaign, Algarra was sent 1,200 pictures of plastic gloves – not only in USA but also in Italy, Spain, Germany and New Zealand. A rough count adds up to more than 1,800 gloves in these pictures alone. Algarra said that the gloves were a growing problem both for the ocean and on dry land. “It not only causes 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. “With the glove challenge, it’s about education. That’s the key for us to do better as a community and as humans,” she added.
In a different part of the world, the forgotten gloves of the pandemic have inspired British photographer Dan Giannopoulos – who began documenting discarded protective gear that he finds on his daily walks. “As a photographer, during the beginning of the lockdown, I had thought about ways to document these surreal times from home,” Giannopoulos wrote in a photo essay for the BBC recently.
This art project to me shows the wilful selfish ignorance of a certain percentage of the UK population who think nothing of dropping their waste even during a pandemic. We’ll probably get on top of the virus but will we ever convince the litter lot? Photos Dan Giannopoulos pic.twitter.com/CgmsNR0yPM
— Dave Kirkwood (@Dave_Kirkwood) April 8, 2020
Closer to home, The UAE government has announced steep fines for those who dispose off their masks or gloves on the side of roads and in public areas. In a statement made across its social networking sites, Abu Dhabi Police said they will issue a AED 1,000 fine for those who litter.