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Pandemic-related trash litters the Bay’s shoreline

on December 5, 2020

As the number of COVID-19 cases continues to rise across California, environmentalists are concerned about another growing problem — pandemic-related trash. 

Around the Bay Area, different groups are warning of increasing amounts of discarded personal protective equipment (PPE) mixed with regular trash.

While there isn’t a lot of hard data available, experts say discarded PPE is a growing problem that needs urgent attention.

According to RoadRunner Recycling, a waste and recycling consultancy firm, 129 billion face masks and 65 billion gloves made from single-use, non-recyclable plastics had been used by October around the world. 

The San Francisco Bay Keeper, a nonprofit environmental advocacy organization, reports a definite increase in the amount of PPE discarded in waterways. 

“PPE is now a staple item in the piles of plastic and paper garbage that litters the Bay’s shoreline, when it hadn’t been before the pandemic,” said  Mark Westlund, the communication director of the San Francisco Bay Keeper. “Face masks are a particular problem because people often assume that they are made of paper that will biodegrade, but they do not.” 

Disposable face masks, latex gloves and plastic bottle hand sanitizers — items used as top measures to prevent the virus from spreading — are adding to the world’s plastic waste crisis at an alarming rate.

Most of this trash, if not disposed correctly, will end up in rivers, lakes and the ocean, where there is already a plastic waste crisis.

EcoWatch, a leading environmental news website, is warning of a rise in pollution from PPE’s in oceans around the world. The Pacific is the most affected, with experts saying an area the size of Texas in the ocean is already under plastic waste.

Single-use face masks and latex gloves do not degrade and pose a significant risk to waterways. 

“With a lifespan of 450 years, these masks are an ecological timebomb given their lasting environmental consequences for our planet,” the website wrote in June.

Land-based activity already accounts for 80% of ocean pollution, EcoWatch says, and about half is a direct result of single-use plastics. 

The San Francisco Bay Keeper patrols the Bay regularly to monitor “polluters and pollution.” And although representatives  say they do not have definite data on just how bad the coronavirus trash problem is, volunteers have collected a significant amount of facemasks during cleanups.

Face masks and latex gloves are, however, not the only trash worrying environmentalists. With the stay-at-home orders issued by local governments to curb the spread of the virus, there has been an increase of other single-use plastics as people order goods — mostly food — online.

According to RoadRunner, this will lead to a 30% increase in single-use plastics waste across the world. 

Some of the areas most affected by coronavirus trash in Oakland are recreational parks like Lake Merrit and the Oakland Stadium. The Baykeeper says it has collected mounds of waste PPE at the stadium.

“We did see disposable masks in the lake initially but we are not seeing them as much lately,” said James Robinson, the executive director of Lake Merritt Institute. 

 The Oakland Public Works Department says it does not have data on how widespread the problem PPE waste is. Kristin Hathaway, the Watershed and Stormwater Division Manager, directed Oakland North to the California Coastal Commission, a state agency that organizes monthly beach cleanups for data on this problem. 

The commission did not return calls for comment. 

But on its website, the commission says amid the pandemic, it’s annual cleanup turned up more than 70,000 pounds of trash from neighborhoods, local parks, creeks or other natural spaces. 

According to the commission, 75% of all collected trash consists of plastic, most of it single-use. 

With the world battling new waves of COVID-19, the  pandemic-related trash problem will likely get worse. 

“Even if 1% of masks are disposed of incorrectly, 10 million will end up in the natural environment per month,” RoadRunner says, quoting a recent WWF report.

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