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“More than 100K items of PPE in under six months, and we know that’s just the tip of the iceberg”

Ocean Conservancy releases PPE pollution data, plastics policy recommendations on one-year anniversary of pandemic lockdowns

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WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today Ocean Conservancy published a report, “Pandemic Pollution: The Rising Tide of Plastic PPE,” revealing that its global network of International Coastal Cleanup (ICC) partners and volunteers collected 107,219 items of personal protective equipment, or PPE, from beaches and waterways worldwide in the second half of 2020 alone.

The report comes approximately one year after the World Health Organization first declared the COVID-19 outbreak a global pandemic and the United States declared a state of emergency that prompted lockdowns and travel restrictions. While scientists have published various estimates of the amount of masks and gloves used and ending up in our environment since the start of the pandemic, few studies have used actual litter counts on such a global, consistent scale to measure the problem.

Ocean Conservancy experts believe the 107K+ figure is likely a vast undercount. The organization added PPE as a data category to its mobile app Clean Swell in late July 2020, by which point many coordinators and volunteers had already been recording PPE data under other data categories like “Personal Hygiene” or “Other Trash.” Notably, the amount of personal hygiene litter recorded in the app between January and July 2020 was three times higher than what was recorded in that same time period for each of the previous three years. Furthermore, in a survey of more than 200 ICC coordinators and volunteers, 30% of respondents reported that they did not record PPE data at all, again suggesting that the PPE numbers are likely a vast underestimate of what was in fact seen and collected.

“The item counts are always going to reflect volunteer turnout on the ground, and there’s no doubt that COVID-19 had a significant impact on volunteers’ ability to go out in their communities and conduct cleanups,” said Allison Schutes, director of Ocean Conservancy’s International Coastal Cleanup. “But that’s exactly what’s so remarkable about these numbers. Despite the limitations, despite that not all of them were able to record data, volunteers collected more than 100 thousand items of PPE in under six months, and we know that’s just the tip of the iceberg.”

Other notable findings from the report include:

  • 94% of ICC volunteers and coordinators surveyed reported observing PPE pollution at a cleanup in 2020
  • Half of the survey respondents reported seeing PPE pollution on a daily basis and another 42% saw PPE in their communities on a weekly or monthly basis
  • Nearly half of the surveyed volunteers reported that a vast majority of the PPE (75%+) was single-use/disposable
  • 40% of surveyed volunteers found 5 or more PPE items at a cleanup; more than 50% of surveyed volunteers found 1–5 PPE items at a cleanup
  • More than 80% of survey respondents identified face masks as the most common form of PPE they encountered
  • 37% of survey respondents reported observing PPE submerged in bodies of water

Intact PPE items are already proven entanglement and choking threats to marine wildlife including seabirds and crabs. Single-use or disposable PPE are predominantly made of plastic polymers and, like all plastics, persist in the environment indefinitely, never fully breaking down but rather breaking up into smaller and smaller pieces called microplastics (or, in the case of synthetic fabrics, microfibers). Research published in the journal Environmental Advances earlier this month showed that a single disposable face mask can release up to 173,000 microfibers per day in a simulated marine environment. Prior to the pandemic, microfibers were already the most common form of microplastic pollution in our waterways and ocean.

“PPE like gloves and masks has been absolutely critical in keeping the public safe throughout the pandemic,” said Nick Mallos, senior director of Ocean Conservancy’s Trash Free Seas® program. “At the same time, there’s no doubt that the resulting plastic pollution has taken a significant toll on the environment and that– like with many pollutants – the ocean is the first to bear the costs. Fortunately, there are actions we can take to prevent this global health crisis from exacerbating the existing plastic pollution crisis.”

The report offers a number of recommendations for government bodies at the federal, state, and local levels, as well as for businesses and individuals, to reduce our reliance on single-use plastics, help bolster struggling waste management systems here in the U.S., and address PPE pollution in particular. These include implementing legislation like the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act, which was reintroduced in Congress earlier this month; ensuring adequate disposal receptacles in places with high foot traffic (like grocery and other retail stores); and snipping the ear loops of face masks to lessen entanglement risk to animals as well as conducting solo or socially distanced cleanups in the community when possible.

“The ocean plastics crisis long preceded the COVID-19 pandemic, but this global tragedy has laid bare how beholden we have become to single-use plastics and how inadequate our waste management systems are,” said Ocean Conservancy CEO Janis Searles Jones. “As governments, the private sector, and the public look hopefully to life beyond the pandemic, we need to seize this moment and adopt policies and practices that benefit both people and our blue planet.”

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Note to editors:

Ocean Conservancy experts are available for comment and interview upon request. Photos and b-roll of PPE pollution are available here. Country and U.S. state-level PPE data are available here. A fact sheet on PPE, ocean plastics, and other related topics is available here.

About Ocean Conservancy

Ocean Conservancy is working to protect the ocean from today’s greatest global challenges. Together with our partners, we create science-based solutions for a healthy ocean and the wildlife and communities that depend on it. For more information, visit oceanconservancy.org, or follow us on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.

About Ocean Conservancy’s Trash Free Seas® Program

Ocean Conservancy has led the fight for a clean, healthy ocean free of trash since 1986, when the U.S.-based nonprofit launched its annual International Coastal Cleanup (ICC). Since then, Ocean Conservancy has mobilized millions of ICC volunteers to remove trash from beaches and waterways around the world while pioneering upstream solutions to the growing ocean plastics crisis. Ocean Conservancy invests in cutting-edge scientific research, implements on-the-ground projects, and works with conservationists, scientists, governments, the private sector and members of the public to change the plastics paradigm. To learn more about our Trash Free Seas® program visit oceanconservancy.org/trashfreeseas.

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