SAN DIEGO (CN) — Rivaling the top trash items collected during beach cleanups, including cigarette butts and food wrappers, the personal protective equipment people were clamoring to get their hands on at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic is now clogging California waterways, with environmental stewards warning it will break down into microplastics which end up in the food system.
PPE Trash Clogging CA Beaches
Within a couple hours during I Love a Clean San Diego’s Coastal Cleanup Day Saturday, the organization’s marketing manager Ian Monahan had already picked up 15 disposable and reusable masks.
And during the group’s annual “Creek to Bay” cleanup, which was postponed several months and held in June due to the pandemic, Monahan said volunteers “saw PPE in spades,” collecting 30 masks within the first half hour of the event from gutters, the boardwalk and tangled in coastal sage scrub.
“PPE was the most remarkable change in our clean-up efforts,” Monahan said.
“Typically it was plastic bags, but now it’s masks.”
Over 7,000 pounds of trash was collected during the cleanup June 20.
Monahan pointed out though the PPE littering California beaches looks like paper, it’s actually plastic.
“It makes its way through the sewer system which ultimately flows through the ocean, and once in the system, they break down into microplastics. Plastic never goes away — it breaks down to the molecular level and infects the food system and marine life,” Monahan said.
With an estimated 200 billion face masks and gloves being discarded every month and Governor Gavin Newsom inking a nearly $1 billion deal to purchase 200 million masks a month in California, environmental advocates are warning strides made to reduce reliance on single-use plastics will be eviscerated during the pandemic.
The Guardian reported in June Covid-related PPE had already washed up in the Mediterranean and had been found in the ocean by divers.
Discarded Covid-19 masks have also littered beaches in Hong Kong.
And with governmental guidance focused on social distancing and eliminating gathering in crowds, beach cleanups were put on hold for the first half of the year.
The California Coastal Commission, which regulates the state’s coastline, had to revamp its widely attended annual Coastal Cleanup Day event to comply with social distancing guidelines this year.
Cleanups were held every Saturday in September, Coastal Commission Marine Debris Program Manager Eben Schwartz told Courthouse News. And the commission encouraged volunteers to hold local neighborhood cleanups to prevent urban and suburban trash from making its way into the California watershed and Pacific Ocean.
“Anecdotally there’s a lot of [PPE] out there, local coordinators throughout state are reporting large upticks of trash on shorelines and PPE in the environment,” Schwartz said, noting the commission asked volunteers to log their trash collected, including PPE, through the Clean Swell app.
Lynn Adams of the Pacific Beach Coalition in San Francisco said after pausing their 10 beach clean-ups a month during the pandemic this past spring, her group resumed its clean-up events on Memorial Day.
Nearly 900 volunteers picked-up over 3,200 personal hygiene items since Memorial Day, including PPE and baby wipes used for sanitizing, Adams told Courthouse News.
“Rubber gloves and face masks with loops for your ears can flow into the ocean and be swallowed and eaten by animals or tangled up in their fins — it’s all plastic too. It’s all really damaging plastic,” Adams said.
“Especially when the winter rains come, [PPE is] going to flow down into creeks and rivers and kill wildlife all the way. Not just on the coast, in places like Wisconsin and the Mississippi River. It’s a nightmare,” she added.
To-Go Container Trash Piling Up
Compounding new trash created by disposable PPE, in-person dining closures at restaurants has created more to-go food container waste which has ended up on California streets and waterways.
Adams said people flocking to beaches in San Francisco to escape quarantine have left their food waste containers behind.
“I’ve never seen so much trash, public works can’t keep up with emptying the trash cans,” Adams said.
Trash left behind by tourists at nearby mountain destination Lake Tahoe prompted local residents to protest.
But take-out container waste isn’t just littering California beaches — urban neighborhoods are seeing an influx in restaurant trash on their streets as well.
Benny Cartwright, a volunteer with I Love a Clean San Diego has done clean-ups for over 15 years.
He said while he found 10 masks during a cleanup in the Hillcrest neighborhood a few weeks ago, disposable restaurant containers have had a “bigger impact” on the urban district a few miles outside downtown San Diego.
Cartwright, who works at a Hillcrest bar, pointed-out bars and restaurants aren’t allowed to serve alcohol unless patrons also purchase food. But residents are still bar hopping in the neighborhood and getting food packed in to-go containers whether or not they eat it or give it away to homeless people.
“There’s more trash and people are intoxicated and not disposing of it properly,” Cartwright said.
“The increase in to-go containers is a result of Covid, but it’s also needed for businesses to survive,” he added.
Stephen Whitburn, a San Diego City Council candidate who picked-up trash in Hillcrest during Coastal Cleanup Day said as more people have become homeless due to the economic fallout caused by the pandemic, there has been more trash.
“My biggest concern about people who are unsheltered is finding them homes and the services they need,” Whitburn said.
“Until we are able to do that, there is an impact on materials that end up on the sidewalks,” he added.
Data on PPE collected during Coastal Cleanup month was expected to be made available by the Coastal Commission at the end of September.