Discarded masks litter beaches worldwide, threaten sea life

This April 4, 2021 photo shows a discarded mask on a beach in Point Pleasant, N.J. Volunteers cleaning beaches around the world have discovered and removed significant quantities of masks, gloves and other personal protective equipment. On Wednesday April 7, 2021, New Jerseys Clean Ocean Action group reported removing 1,113 such items during beach cleanups last fall. (AP Photo/Wayne Parry)

SANDY HOOK, N.J. – 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.

“Once in the environment, disposable PPE act like any other single-use plastic, likely never breaking down but rather breaking up into smaller and smaller pieces and persisting indefinitely," said Nicholas Mallos, senior director of the Ocean Conservancy’s Trash Free Seas program. "In fact, a recent study found that a single disposable mask can shed up to 173,000 microfibers — tiny plastic fibers — in a single day.

“What this means is that the damage is cumulative, adding up over time to the massive amount of plastics already entering our ocean each year,” he said. "PPE has been vital in protecting human health, but the resulting pollution has also exposed that our waste systems are not equipped to handle crises like this.”