Estimated 1.56 billion face masks to enter oceans in 2020, experts say they saw it coming

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CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCBD) – According to a new report from OceansAsia, a conservation group, 1.56 billion single-use face masks will have entered oceans by the end of 2020. While plastic consumption has steadily risen through the years, researchers said the pandemic significantly increased usage and demand.

Lowcountry marine-life experts told News 2 that they saw this coming immediately after the pandemic began as gloves and disposable masks were spread across the ground. Andrew Wunderley, the Executive Director for the Charleston Waterkeeper, said ‘what ends up on the ground, almost immediately ends up in our waterways.’

This means that when it came to masks, like with many single use items, additional pollution was inevitable.

According to Wunderley, the one of the most common misconceptions is that disposable face masks are made of cloth when they actually are woven plastic or polymers. No matter the type of polymer used, leaving behind a mask can be detrimental for both humans and marine life.

From there it makes it’s way you know into the fish that we eat, the shrimp, the oysters, and all those little species that live in our marsh and use our marsh as nursery and critical habitat. 

Andrew Wunderley, The Charleston Waterkeeper 

While disposable masks were the primary focus for OceansAsia‘s study, Wunderley said the pandemic also introduced the normalization of plastic gloves. The gloves often look like plastic bags that resemble jellyfish and make fish, turtles, and other sea life believe they are food. 

Though Wunderly added there is no dispute in the current need to wear a mask among other PPE, an easy alternative to keep yourself—and the marine life safe is to use reusable fabric masks and, of course, to ensure that your waste makes it into a trash bin or recycling parcel.

These estuaries, these rivers, and these creeks are really the point of first contact for this pollution to make it into the ocean. If we can stop it here, we can stop it from impacting the ocean. 

Andrew Wunderley, The Charleston Waterkeeper 

As for what can be done for those masks that have already been left behind, the Charleston Water Keeper does have DIY kits that you can use as well as will have volunteer opportunities coming in the new year.

For more on those small group volunteer opportunities, click here.

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