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USA - Plastics epidemic: Let's not waste the opportunity to tackle waste

With coronavirus cases rising in many places around the United States and health officials predicting a second wave to come, there’s no doubt that personal protective equipment (PPE) items like gloves and masks are here to stay.

Globally, the numbers are shocking. Scientists recently estimated that 129 billion face masks and 65 billion gloves have been used around the world every month. Unfortunately, most of these items are single-use and — because they are biohazards, among other reasons — cannot be recycled. So while PPE is absolutely critical to tackling the pandemic, we must address the increased strain that they place on our already overburdened waste management systems if we want to avoid aggravating another crisis: ocean plastic pollution.

Single-use masks and gloves are made of plastics, meaning these items do not biodegrade over time. As unsightly as single-use PPE litter is on land, it may very well be deadly once in the ocean. We can expect lightweight, synthetic gloves to behave similarly to plastic bags, for example, which easily snag on underwater structures and are often mistaken for jellyfish by foraging sea turtles and other ocean creatures. In fact, research I co-authored with my colleagues at Ocean Conservancy as well as CSIRO suggests that plastic bags are among the top five deadliest forms of marine debris.

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