SANDY HOOK, N.J. (AP) — To the usual list of foul trash left behind or washed up on beaches around the world, add these: masks and gloves used by people to avoid the coronavirus and then discarded on the sand.
In the past year, volunteers picking up trash on beaches from the Jersey Shore to California, the United Kingdom and Hong Kong have been finding discarded personal protective equipment.
The latest example came Wednesday when New Jersey’s Clean Ocean Action environmental group released its annual tally of trash plucked from the state’s shorelines. In addition to the plastics, cigarette butts and food wrappers that sully the sand each year, the group’s volunteers removed 1,113 masks and other pieces of virus-related protective gear from New Jersey beaches last fall.
“Used correctly PPE saves lives; disposed of incorrectly it kills marine life,” said Cindy Zipf, the group’s executive director. “PPE litter is a gross result of the pandemic, and 100% avoidable. Use PPE properly, then dispose of it properly in a trash can. It’s not hard and it’s the least we can do for this marvel of a planet we all live on, not to mention ourselves.”
Discarded masks and gloves started showing up on beaches not long after the virus began circulating widely last year, and continued to appear as quarantine-weary people sought an escape at the beach.
In the second half of 2020, more than 107,000 items of PPE were collected by volunteers around the world according to the Ocean Conservancy group — a figure its members believe is a vast undercount of the year’s true totals.
In Northern California, the Pacific Beach Coalition recently noticed a dramatic increase in discarded PPE on beaches in and around the city of Pacifica, south of San Francisco. A clean-up day in San Diego netted 413 latex gloves and more than 700 single-use surgical masks.
Conservationists have reported sea birds becoming entangled in the ear straps of face masks, and they worry that marine life could eat masks or gloves, mistaking it for food, and suffer serious or fatal consequences.