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Coronavirus: The new plastic suffocating our oceans

Publication Date: September 2, 2020

Plastic bag and disposable mask in the ocean among jelly fish and a turtle

Plastic in the ocean has been a rising issue for decades but its urgency is dramatically increasing due to plastic’s inability to biodegrade. Whether or not you properly dispose of your single-use plastics, such as soda bottles, straws or to-go containers, they are likely to find their way into the ocean. As Nick Mallos, a senior director of the nonprofit organization Ocean Conservancy, said, “Trash travels.”

As we all know, the coronavirus (COVID-19) has taken the world by storm. From wearing disposable masks and using single-use gloves to getting tested and using copious amounts of hand sanitizer, experts expect COVID-19 waste to be the worst ocean polluter. 

According to CNN, 129 billion face masks and 65 billion gloves are being used each month. These staggering and increasingly worrisome numbers have given conservationists evidence to believe that soon there may be more masks than jellyfish in the sea (CNN). 

Divers and ocean cleanup enthusiasts have seen an increasing number of masks and gloves washing up on shores and the ocean floor. 

“On a beach about 100 meters long, we found about 70 [masks],” said Gary Stokes of Oceans Asia. 

One week later, another 30 masks had washed up. According to The Guardian, the 30 masks were found “on an uninhabited island in the middle of nowhere.”

 This is only the tip of the iceberg of discovering the coronavirus’ waste in the ocean.

One of the reasons plastics infect our oceans and marine life is because of their durability and inability to biodegrade. Similarly, single-use masks are made with a fossil-fuel derived plastic called polypropylene, which has a lifespan of 450 years. Considering that masks last four times longer in the environment than an average human lifespan, human , French Politician Éric Pauget believes that, “these masks are an ecological time bomb.” 

Rider junior musical theater major Theresa Hall feels similarly and says, “At work, I see masks littered all over the parking lot and I know that they will just end up in the ocean.” 

A simple first step is ridding of single-use masks for the general population and using reusable masks because this extremely slow degrading waste on top of our already plastic-filled ocean needs attention immediately.

At Rider, we will be wearing masks on campus, so it is important to keep in mind the waste we are producing as a result of COVID-19. Sophomore early childhood education major and special education minor Tara Towson, who is a member of the Green Team, said, “Being someone who already cares so much about sustainability, it pains me to see all the COVID-19 litter. Littering isn’t new, but now that we need these things to stay healthy and protected, we need to be more aware of what happens to the masks when we’re finished using them. Or, an even better solution altogether is buying an inexpensive reusable mask and saving the ocean and marine life from any more damage.” 

Think like Tara and buy a reusable Rider mask (sold in the Bookstore), wash your hands more frequently instead of wearing gloves and buy hand sanitizers that come in recyclable containers. While COVID-19 has brought strife and uncertainty across the globe, there are simple and inexpensive alternatives that will help you be the change, stop the waste and save our oceans.

Ashlyn Whiteside 

Rider Eco-Rep

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