With the onset of the global COVID-19 pandemic, people have been turning to single-use plastic and disposables like never before. And all of that waste is turning up in the world’s oceans at an unprecedented level.

Unsurprisingly, used face-mask pollution is now alarmingly common in city-street gutters, streams and more increasingly, the planet’s beaches and oceans.

According to a recent report published by OceansAsia, nearly 1.56 billion face masks entered the ocean in 2020 during the pandemic.

Asia in particular is hard-hit due to a relatively sub-par waste-management infrastructure. But the problem is global and no country’s shores are immune from the visual blight and potential choking hazards to marine life.

Dr. Teale Phelps Bondaroff, director of research for OceansAsia, says that because many of these masks are derived from plastic, they can be extremely hard to remove from the environment.

“About six weeks after COVID hit Hong Kong, so late February, we began finding masks, and lots of masks,” Bondaroff told a Denver ABC affiliate in a recent interview. “What’s remarkable is we weren’t finding face masks before COVID.”

The OceansAsia report indicates that between 4,680 and 6,240 metric tonnes of plastic pollution entered the the world’s oceans in 2020. “These masks will take as long as 450 years to break down,” the report reads, “and all the while serve as a source of micro plastic and negatively impact marine wildlife and ecosystems.

As the masks break down over that duration, its polypropylene plastic microfibers break into smaller and smaller particles that last for centuries. These microplastics then enter the marine food chain and can cause choking, disease and death.

“Annually,” the report continues, “it is estimated that marine plastic pollution kills 100,000 marine mammals and turtles, over a million seabirds, and even greater numbers of fish, invertebrates, and other marine life. Plastic pollution also profoundly impacts coastal communities, fisheries and economies. Conservative estimates suggest that it could cost the global economy $13 billion USD per year, and lead to a 1-5% decline in ecosystem services, at a value of between $500 to $2,500 billion USD.”

Looking to pick up the slack and be part of the solution? Us too. Whenever possible, use reusable or recyclable containers that cut the plastic out of the ecological biosphere. In the context of the pandemic, that means utilizing washable cloth masks instead of cheaper throwaway substitutes.

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