Millions of Tons of COVID Masks, Gloves Will End Up in Oceans

By Cara Murez

Health Day reporter

TUESDAY, November 9, 2021 (HealthDay News) – While lockdowns from the pandemic may have done the planet’s atmosphere a favor, a new study predicts that discarded masks, gloves and face shields will add more than 25,000 tonnes of plastic waste to the world’s oceans.

Researchers from the School of Atmospheric Sciences at Nanjing University in China and the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California at San Diego (UCSD) used a new model to project the amount of plastic waste associated with the pandemic and their destination.

Investigators have found that a total of 8 million tonnes will be produced, with a significant portion of this ocean plastic debris ending up on beaches or on the seabed within three to four years.

A smaller amount will go into the open ocean, where it will be trapped in the center of ocean basins or subtropical eddies and in an area of ​​circumpolar plastic accumulation in the Arctic Ocean.

Most of the global plastic waste entering the ocean comes from Asia and is hospital waste, the researchers found, using data from the start of the pandemic in 2020 through August 2021.

“When we started to do the math, we were surprised to find that the amount of medical waste was considerably more than the amount of individual waste, and much of it came from Asian countries, although not where most COVID -19 cases were, ”said study co-author Amina Schartup, assistant professor at Scripps Oceanography.

“The biggest sources of excess waste were hospitals in areas already struggling with waste management before the pandemic; they just weren’t set up to handle a situation where you have more waste,” he said. she noted in a press release from UCSD.

Most plastic enters the ocean from rivers, and these areas require special attention in plastic waste management, the study authors noted.

About 73% of plastic releases occurred in Asian rivers. The three main contributors were the Chatt al-Arab, Indus and Yangtze rivers. These waterways flow into the Persian Gulf, the Arabian Sea and the East China Sea.


European rivers come second with 11% of the flow. Other continents have made minor contributions to plastic waste, the results showed.

Nanjing University’s new model was built on the basis of Newton’s laws of motion and the law of conservation of mass, and works like “virtual reality,” said Yanxu Zhang, correspondent author and professor at Nanjing University School of Atmospheric Sciences.

“The model simulates how seawater moves in the wind and how plastics float on the ocean surface, degraded by sunlight, polluted by plankton, land on beaches and s’ are sinking into the depths, ”Zhang said. “It can be used to answer ‘what if’ questions, for example, what will happen if we add a certain amount of plastic to the ocean? “

An ocean circulation pattern means that a small amount of plastic will eventually circulate or settle in the Arctic Ocean, which is already considered vulnerable due to its harsh environment and high sensitivity to climate change. This appears to be a “dead end” for the plastic debris transported there due to ocean circulation patterns, according to the authors.

About 80% of the plastic debris that passes through the Arctic Ocean will sink quickly, and an area of ​​circumpolar plastic accumulation is modeled to form by 2025.

The study authors called for better management of medical waste in epicenters, especially in developing countries, as well as raising global public awareness of the environmental impact of personal protective equipment (PPE) and other plastic products. They also suggested the development of innovative technologies for better collection, classification, treatment and recycling of plastic waste, and the development of more environmentally friendly materials.

“Indeed, plastic linked to COVID is only part of a bigger problem we face in the 21st century: plastic waste,” Zhang said. “To solve it, it takes a lot of technical renovation, economic transition and lifestyle changes. ”

More information

The United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has more information on plastic waste in the ocean.

SOURCE: University of California, San Diego, press release, November 8, 2021

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