In these strange and surreal times, there’s been much excited talk of environmental healing as pollution levels drop, air quality duly improves – and, from Barcelona via London to Mumbai, wild animals roam with significantly more abandon.
Yet this unintended boost to the natural world may have been rather fleeting. Already China is reporting that air pollutants are back up to pre-lockdown levels. And now, in a worrying (and frankly, totally preventable) side effect of our bizarre new world order, environmental groups say discarded single-use gloves and face masks are being found washed up on beaches and even deposited on seabeds, the world over.
Many governments – and as of last weekend, the World Health Organisation too – are recommending people wear masks in public to help protect themselves and curb the spread of outbreaks. Many shop and health staff, along with more wary members of the public, are also donning plastic gloves. With increased public health measures set to endure for the foreseeable, millions if not billions of single-use masks and gloves could be thrown away.
As early as March, there were reports that Hong Kong’s beaches were piling up with discarded protective gear. Gary Stokes, of environmental group Oceans Asia, told Reuters at the time: ‘We only have had masks for the last six to eight weeks… we are now seeing the effect on the environment.’
Stokes said that during a litter pick on the territory’s isolated Soko Islands, he found 70 surgical masks over a 100m stretch of beach. When he came back a week later, 30 more had washed up. These single-use masks are often partially made of plastic, which takes centuries to degrade, and can’t be recycled.
Three months later, on World Oceans Day, masks and gloves are a common sight on beaches and waterways worldwide. The NGO Opération Mer Propre (Operation Clean Sea) last month released images of a clean-up operation in the Mediterranean during which a diver found ten latex gloves and four surgical masks floating near the seabed.
The group warned that unless people stopped throwing masks and gloves on to roads or pavements (where they will often be pushed into the gutter and washed out into a river or sea), ‘a real ecological disaster’ looms. A spokesperson told Euronews that there could soon be ‘more masks than jellyfish in the waters of the Mediterranean’.
To prevent unnecessary littering, environmental campaigners are suggesting people invest in reusable face masks rather than wear tens or hundreds of the single-use kind. Latex or nitrile gloves should be thrown in landfill, but vinyl gloves can be recycled if you have dedicated plastic collection.
Just yesterday, the French government said it would hike fines for dropping litter following a public outcry over images of masks and gloves floating in the sea. Brune Poirson, a minister for the environment, said fines for littering would almost double from €68 to €135.
As ‘unlockdown’ continues apace and many of us reconnect with the wider world again, the oceans and sealife are as endangered as ever. Howsabout we all do our bit?