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‘Tip of the iceberg’: Ocean Conservancy reports 100K+ items of PPE litter collected in six months

Maddie Black, Ocean Conservancy
PPE pollution on a U.S. coastal shoreline

In a report released March 30, the Ocean Conservancy said volunteers around the world collected more than 100,000 items of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) over the last six months of 2020. But the organization estimates the actual number of PPE polluting coastal environments to be in the low millions.

The report is based on data collected through a network of International Coastal Cleanup partners and volunteers.

The Ocean Conservancy considers PPE to be face masks, gloves, face shields and sanitizing wipes.

The Ocean Conservancy said the 100,000 number is a vast undercount of the amount of PPE pollution that actually exists in the ocean, on beaches and in other coastal environments.

Britta Baechler is a senior manager of ocean plastics research with the Ocean Conservancy. She said 100,000 is a low count because fewer volunteers turned out to collect trash in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

She also said the organization didn’t add PPE as a data category to its litter tracking mobile app, known as Clean Swell, until July of 2020. So volunteers recorded PPE data under other categories for the first half of the year.

The report highlights that 94% of surveyed volunteers and coordinators observed PPE pollution at a cleanup in 2020.

Nearly half of those volunteers reported that 75% or more of the PPE was single-use.

“Obviously PPE has been a really important part of bending the curve on this pandemic,” Baechler said. “But it is a concern that these items, which are largely made of plastics and plastic polymers, are making their way into the environment, degrading into microplastics and causing ingestion and entanglement hazards to wildlife.”

Baechler said 37% of those surveyed reported seeing PPE submerged in bodies of water. She said a single submerged disposable face mask can release millions of microfibers into a waterway.

Ben Ruttenberg is an associate professor in the Biological Sciences Department at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and director of the Center for Coastal Marine Sciences. He said any pollution that makes its way to the ocean is harmful.

Ruttenberg said wildlife consume microplastics and, through a process called bioaccumulation, the plastics move through the food chain and eventually make their way into humans.

Baechler said people and businesses can take steps to limit PPE pollution. She said establishments can minimize single-use plastics and increase the number of trash bins.

Baechler and Ruttenberg both urge people to wear reusable masks or face shields whenever possible.

If someone must dispose of PPE, Baechler recommends snipping the ear loops of masks to avoid entanglement hazards.

She says people can also help by joining the Clean Swell app and using it to track pollution as they pick it up.

Rachel Showalter first joined KCBX as an intern from Cal Poly in 2017. During her time in college, she anchored and reported for Mustang News at Cal Poly's radio station, KCPR. After graduating, she took her first job as a Producer at KSBY-TV. She returned to the KCBX team in October 2020, reporting daily for KCBX News until she moved to the Pacific Northwest in July of 2022. Rachel spends her off-days climbing rocks, cooking artichokes and fighting crosswords with friends.
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