Warning of 'a pandemic for the ocean' as dumped PPE adds to surging litter problem

There's a new ‘pandemic for the ocean' on the horizon, as masks and other PPE being dropped and littered becomes a major problem for the environment, conservationists have warned.

The Marine Conservation Society told me they're finding a worrying amount of PPE washed up on beaches.

The Herefordshire-based charity organises the Great British Beach Clean every year - and this year’s event saw masks, gloves and other protective gear spotted on 30% of UK beaches.

Volunteers also found PPE on 69% of their inland litter collections.

30%

of UK beaches had PPE litter

69%

of inland litter picks also found PPE

“I think we were shocked at just how much that was being found,” beach watch officer Lizzie Prior said. 

“Our volunteers record 100m, so for every stretch they were recording what they found, they were coming across PPE.

"When you think that we've only really been using things like face masks since July, that's a really worrying trend.

One of the face masks found during the Great British Beach Clean. Credit: Marine Conservation Society

“We worry that this could be a pandemic for the ocean by adding a new single use item to the environment when we still haven’t actually tackled a lot of the old single use items like the plastic bottles and drinks cans and bottles.”

Litter has a devastating effect on wildlife. Animals can be tangled up in it or accidentally eat it, and when it involves a loop of material - such as the old plastic beer can rings, or the ear straps on a face mask - they can be strangled.

And with most brands of disposable masks containing some kind of plastic, those which aren’t disposed of properly can take up to 450 years to decompose.

We worry that this could be a pandemic for the ocean by adding a new single use item to the environment when we still haven’t actually tackled a lot of the old [ones].

Lizzie Prior, Marine Conservation Society

Litter-picking volunteers in the Midlands say they’re seeing more and more being discarded on pavements, in car parks and green spaces, contributing to a huge surge in littering overall seen during the Coronavirus pandemic.

PPE is contributing to a surge in littering overall, according to people who spend their free time picking it up. Credit: PA

David Robinson, from the River Litter Pick Team in Leicester, said they had to stop litter-picking activity when the first lockdown was announced in March, and they didn’t restart until September.

In two months, they managed to collect almost 300 bin bags full of litter from the banks of the River Soar - more than a year’s worth of rubbish in just two months.

“It’s definitely shot up. There’s just a lot more being thrown in the river at the moment,” he said.

300

bags of litter collected by the River Litter Team in two months - more than a year's worth

“We see certain things like bottles, cans, wrappers, crisp packets all the time. And PPE, masks, gloves, that’s now just become part of that whole scene now.

“It just adds to a problem that’s already plaguing the country and the world really.”

Meanwhile, the Pickup Artists - a volunteer group based in Kidderminster in Worcestershire - said they had noticed it more and more.

“It’s disgusting,” group founder Michelle Medler said.

Litter-pickers say they've seen more and more face masks discarded, and called it 'disgusting'.

"The litter around us was manageable before the first lockdown, and we did hope that after lockdown it would stay the same. It didn’t, it did seem to get worse very quickly.

“Everything is throwaway, everybody only wants to touch things once. I think it’s going to have a really negative impact.

“We recently did a litter pick in one car park and even though it was a DIY car park, we found about 30 masks in a very small section.”

Now, campaigners are urging people to think twice before carelessly tossing litter - including masks - on to the ground instead of into a bin.

Otherwise, they warn, our planet could be suffering the consequences for years to come.

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