COVID Clutter

April 17, 2022
By Damond Benningfield


Millions of masks, gloves, and other pieces of debris have washed up on beaches. Credit: dronepicr, CC BY 2.0.

Covid-19 has impacted just about every aspect of life. One of those impacts is ocean pollution. Millions of masks, gloves, and other pieces of debris have washed up on beaches or into the open ocean. That’s a problem not just for human life, but for all life in or around the oceans.

Masks and other protective gear can be whisked into the oceans by rivers, winds, drainage systems, and other avenues. Winds and tides drive some of the trash onto the beaches. Scientists have recorded old masks and other equipment on beaches around the world. Trash has been seen on the sea floor and even floating in the open ocean as well.

One study estimated that one-and-a-half billion masks entered the oceans in 2020 alone. And another said that 25,000 tons of plastic debris from Covid had entered the oceans by the end of 2021.

For people, used protective gear is an eyesore and a health hazard. For other life, it can be deadly. Many shorebirds have become entangled in masks and gloves, and some have died after trying to eat them. Seals, crabs, and other animals have gotten tangled up as well.

And over the coming years and even centuries, much of the plastic debris could break down into smaller pieces. Birds, fish, sea turtles, and other critters could die after eating these toxic leftovers. So the effects of Covid-19 could extend far into the future -- and far out to sea.