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PPE Litter Is Adding Up on the World's Beaches

Environmental groups fear damage, ask users to dispose of trash properly
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Apr 7, 2021 6:05 PM CDT

(Newser) – 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 UK and Hong Kong have been finding discarded personal protective equipment. In Scotland, for instance, discarded PPE was found on nearly a quarter of the beaches cleaned last fall by the Marine Conservation Society. The latest example came Wednesday, the AP reports, 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.

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"Used correctly PPE saves lives; disposed of incorrectly it kills marine life," said Cindy Zipf, the group's executive director. She asked that everyone dispose of PPE properly, in the trash, when they're finished with it. 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. "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 an Ocean Conservancy official. That means the damage is cumulative, he said. Conservationists have reported sea birds becoming entangled in the ear straps of masks, and they worry that marine life could eat masks or gloves, mistaking them for food, and be harmed. Clean Ocean Action's beach sweeps also came across a back scrubber, a home pregnancy test, a bong, a check for $81, a New Orleans Saints flag, and a wooden pig's head.

(Read more littering stories.)

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