Remember that video, where the sea turtle had a plastic straw lodged in its nostril? Michael Shellenberger documented how the subsequent straw ban removed only 0.03 percent of ocean plastic pollution. This small step was dwarfed by the annual amount of personal protective equipment sent to landfills and into our seas during the course of the COVID-19 pandemic. There once was a time where between 88 and 99 percent of ocean pollution came from 10 rivers — 2 in Africa, and 8 in Asia. But the developing world is no longer alone in its crimes against climate. An estimated 1.6 billion masks made their way to sea in 2020. How does a nation committed to net zero reconcile the damage its pandemic policies have inflicted on the environment?
Recently, the government has faced calls from senior health officials to end mass testing, in light of the mildness of the Omicron variant. Until now, the UK has provided lateral flow tests free at the point of use, via the taxpayer-funded National Health Service, for regular asymptomatic testing. This initiative has not only made the UK consistently one of the highest case rates per capita in Europe, but also the third highest nation in Europe for spending taxpayer funds on testing. But the restrictions predicated on these rising case rates weren’t the only toxic aspect of these tests. The plastic casing of the litmus paper, the cotton swabs, the plastic vials for the solution, the tiny purposeless disposable plastic bags… All excess and unnecessary packaging, purchased from the nation which unleashed COVID on the globe in the first place.
The phrase “It’s just a mask” should elicit similar ire from conservationists. At time of writing, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch comes in at just under 2,300,000 km2. A typical disposable plastic mask is 153cm2. From 2020 alone, the surface area covered by masks floating in the ocean is 24.48km2. Though this is only 0.001 percent of the total surface area of these connected trash vortexes, it is worth noting that 60 percent of the Garbage Patch plastic is less dense than seawater — whereas masks take 450 years to biodegrade. This is a longer decay life than plastic bags. This 5,500 metric tons of annual mask pollution is accelerating the date at which plastic waste outnumbers all sea life, and masks already outnumber jellyfish in our oceans.
Of the 58.8 million masks used daily in the UK at the peak of the pandemic, 53.3 million went to landfill. There were 129 billion masks worn monthly worldwide, and 90 percent of those were thrown away after one use too. That’s 3 million masks binned a minute. By those estimates, if everyone in the US used a single-use face-mask every day for a year, it would create 323,000 tons of additional contaminated waste, and 279,000 tons of plastic packaging.
Beyond pure waste, the masks have a nasty habit of finding their way into habitats. The Marine Conservation Society found masks in 30 percent of beach clean-ups and 69 percent of inland litter pick-ups. The RSPCA urged wearers to snip the straps, following rescuing birds found strangled and entangled in discarded masks. And all of this article so far has omitted examining the emissions and human costs associated with producing and delivering these products. Sweatshops have switched from stitching cheap clothing for fast fashion to making masks. Now, governments worldwide have secured PPE contracts for a virus that they engineered, and plastic pollution has increased as a consequence.
So, what are the innovative solutions to solve our post-pandemic plastic pollution problem?
Recycling initiatives have begun to collect and repurpose the plastic lateral flow tests into furniture. Masks, however, are non-recyclable. Instead, an unlikely source may save our seas from the abundance of dubiously effective disposable muzzles floating in them: bacteria.
Oceanospirillales microbes devoured up to fifty percent of the 800 million liters of oil pumped into the Gulf of Mexico by the Deepwater Horizon spill. Gene sequencing by University of Texas researchers has shown how several bacteria could break down aromatic hydrocarbons. The largest population concentration of these oil-eating bacteria has been found in the still largely uncharted Mariana Trench. It has been proposed that these microbes be weaponized against future ecological disasters, until the world abandons fossil fuels. Other bacteria were isolated from a bottle recycling plant, and were found to degrade and metabolise Polyethylene terephthalate as a primary food source. These bio-remedial methods could be repurposed as a form of environmental antibodies specifically against the plastic pollution floating in our oceans after Covid.
As Omicron wanes and the pandemic threat for the vulnerable recedes, it is time we evaluated our pandemic policy. Many mistakes were made — and not evaluating the environmental impact of one-and-done PPE equipment was among those. Research initiatives must begin investigating and investing in treating our oceans and landscapes for the masks and tests polluting them, like they are viruses themselves. But preventative policies must be put in place to ensure that, should another pandemic arise within this century, the same costly measures are not needlessly inflicted on the planet, or its people.