Plastic PPE plagues British beaches

Isabel Lamb on the recent Marine Conservation Society report highlighting PPE as a polluter of our coastlines

Isabel Lamb
15th November 2020
The Marine Conservation Society’s annual litter survey for 2020 shows a worrying amount of plastic personal protective equipment (PPE) is being found on beaches and in water ways.

Nearly ¼ of all beaches and 70% of all inland rivers and lakes surveyed were found to be covered in PPE used by the general public, such as face masks and gloves.

Disposable face masks tend to be made from polypropylene which can take hundreds of years to decompose. Polypropylene is actually recyclable, but only 1% of the of the world’s most common plastic is currently recycled.

PPE itself is not recyclable due to health and safety reasons

The rest either ends up in landfill, where it may be transported by wind and fresh water channels towards the coastline, or simply dumped on beaches by thoughtless individuals. PPE itself is not recyclable due to health and safety reasons, but is still often poorly disposed of making it more likely to end up contaminating our coasts.

Credit: Sergito Kmakov on Pixabay

Marine garbage is unsightly and unpleasant for humans but can also have devastating effects on the wildlife that call British coastlines home. Fish and sea birds, such as anchovies and kittiwakes, are being found with stomachs full of undigestible plastic which is preventing the digestion of actual food, leading to an excruciatingly slow and agonising demise.

Constantly hungry, they must now search longer for food, wasting precious energy already in short supply. Sea birds are also being found tangled in face masks, unable to escape.

Adverse effects on wildlife are likely to occur more frequently as plastic production continues to rise

It’s not just smaller creatures who are affected by plastic waste. In 2019, the body of a whale washed up on Scottish shores. 100kg of plastic debris was found lumped inside its stomach. Sadly, this is not unheard of and is likely to occur more frequently as the amount of plastic waste produced, including PPE, continues to rise.

Credit: Pxfuel
Whale with stomach open
Credit: SMASS via BBC News

Why animals consume plastic is not clearly understood but the general consensus appears to be that with 18 billion plastic pounds floating in our oceans, it is inevitable that some will be eaten by wildlife. It could also be a case of mistaken identity; the plastic gloves and other such items drifting in the currents may appear similar to prey. And for whales in particular, who use echolocation to locate food, it may be that plastic sounds the same as their prey.

Attempts can be made to avoid unnecessary plastic and plastic that cannot be avoided should be properly disposed of

If we no longer want to see our marine wildlife starving, scarred and sinking to an early grave then we need to revamp our outlook on plastic waste.

Attempts can be made to avoid unnecessary plastic and plastic that cannot be avoided should be properly disposed of. Face masks should always be disposed of in a bin and ideally be put inside of a bin bag which can be tied at the top to prevent them blowing away. Cutting away the elastic once you have finished with your disposable mask can also prevent wildlife from becoming entangled. Using a reusable face mask will also help reduce the sheer amount of waste that we currently produce.

Featured Image: Brian Yurasits on Unsplash

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