The greatest danger to our planet is the belief that someone else will save it.” -Robert Swan

Our oceans are full of diverse marine life. And instead of protecting it, we have found various ways to endanger it. Every year the rainstorms, or other natural calamities, throw out the trash that we humans dump in the oceans—giving us proof of what we are doing to the oceans. Every year there are tons of videos or documentaries showcasing how thousands of marine mammals die after ingesting plastic or getting entangled in it. These are hints that we need to do better.

With COVID-19, the Earth provided clean air because of low air pollution, and when the Dolphins were spotted in water bodies, no one dumped anything into them. But the pandemic did not prove to be a boon for the waters for too long. Sooner than later, the preventive measures to avoid contracting COVID, i.e., masks and gloves, were added globally to the list of foul trash washed up on beaches or discarded on the sand.

Here’s how both plastics and masks are threatening the marine life of the oceans.

  1. Plastic

The ocean are polluted with nearly five trillion pieces of plastic. Eight million tons of plastic make their way to the sea every year. That is equal to at least one truckload of garbage dumped into the sea every minute of the day. After that, it goes on a dangerous and long journey. The plastic that enters the ocean can branch out to waters across the globe due to currents, including remote Antarctica and the deepest place on Earth, i.e., the Mariana trench. This only causes unbounded harm to marine life and infiltrates ecosystems.

Even then, the oceans worldwide are critically endangered as plastic production
continues; plastic pollution has deadly and direct effects on wildlife.

  • The Major Plastic issue

Plastic in our daily lives is almost unavoidable. Plastic is utilized for everything, right from computers and cars, to food packaging and toiletries, furniture, the consumer goods that fill our stores, and in our clothing, which discards microplastic fibers when washed. This universal material is designed in such a way that its durability is noteworthy, and hence much of it also isn’t biodegradable.

Unfortunately, plastic is extremely durable; the EPA reports state that “every piece of plastic ever made still exists.” The Earth’s five major ocean gyres are swamped with plastic pollution. The largest of which has been dubbed the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a gyre of plastic waste in the north-central Pacific Ocean. Globally, it’s the largest mass of plastic that exists.

Depending on the kind of plastic, it can take somewhere between a few decades to potentially millions of years to disintegrate in the landfill. Subsequently, even if it is burned, it adds to the pollution. However, almost every piece of plastic ever manufactured exists even today, and when it enters the ocean, its effect remains for centuries.

  • The toll of plastic on wildlife

Due to getting entangled, and eating plastic, thousands of animals, right from small finches to blue whales, die gruesome deaths.

Every year, the North Pacific fish ingest 12,000 to 24,000 tons of plastic, which causes death, intestinal injury, and carries plastic up the food chain to marine mammals and human seafood eaters. A recent study discovered that at least a quarter of fish in California’s markets contained plastic in their guts, out of which most were in the form of plastic microfibers.

Sea turtles mistakenly consume plastic debris dumped at sea as food. Dreadfully, half of the sea turtles globally have ingested plastic, according to recent research. Sea turtles can assume they are full from eating plastic and thus starve to death, or they can choke and sustain an internal injury, leading to their death. New studies have shown that plastic pollution is so prevalent on several beaches that it affects their reproduction.

Every year, more than thousands of seabirds ingest plastic, causing starvation, as ingesting plastic shrinks the storage volume of the stomach. An estimated 60% of seabird species have eaten plastic pieces, and this number is expected to increase by 2050 to 99%. Dead seabirds are often found with stomachs filled with plastic, suggesting that the amount of litter in our oceans has risen rapidly in the past 40 years.

In the highly endangered habitat of the Hawaiian monk seals, huge amounts of plastic debris have been found, even in areas served as pup nurseries. Entanglement in plastic trash has also led to injuries and deaths in the endangered Steller sea lions, with packing bands – the most common intertwining material. Dead whales with bellies full of plastic have were found dead.

  • Where does plastic come from?

We produce more than 300 million tons of plastic waste every year globally, and that number is still rising. Out of the plastic waste created, only 9% has actually been recycled, while the remaining of it has been burned up or discarded and mainly wound up in landfills. One of the primary reasons for this is that 50% of the plastic produced is only a single-use, meaning it’s intended that after it’s been used, it has to be immediately thrown away. For instance, plastic carrier bags, straws, and water bottles. These items are quite frequently produced and quickly discarded. These single-use plastics are the reason for the increase in the amount of waste entering landfills that, in turn, increases the amount that undoubtedly escapes into the environment.

  • What can be done?

Without hesitation, every individual needs to reduce their single-use plastic, contributing a significant amount to plastic pollution in the sea. Recycling all sorts of plastic is also essential. Volunteering for group beach and river clean-ups helps reduce the amount of loose plastic found in the ocean. It is critical to support sound policy changes and campaigns that reduce unnecessary plastic production.

Technology, too, is lending a hand towards the reduction of plastic pollution in oceans.

2. Masks

Over the past year and a half, masks have been a preventive measure against the
COVID-19 pandemic that also helped save lives. But now, these masks stand as a deadly hazard for wildlife, with marine creatures, and birds trapped in the alarming number of discarded masks, and gloves littering animal habitats.

In order to slow the spread of COVID-19, various countries began making masks as a compulsory measure to use in public places. The single-use surgical masks were found littered worldwide at pavements, beaches, and waterways.

Given how India and various other countries have been facing the new waves of the virus, it looks like masks won’t be going away any time soon. But when we throw these masks, we are endangering the environment and its animals.

In the exterior of the hills outside Malaysia’s capital, Kuala Lumpur, macaques have been seen chewing off the straps of masks thrown away. This is a choking hazard for these petite monkeys.

Another story that captured the world’s attention is when in Britain’s Chelmsford, a gull’s legs were entangled in the straps of a disposable mask for a week and were rescued by the RSPCA. The animal welfare organization was alerted immediately that the bird appeared immobile but alive, and it was taken to a wildlife hospital for treatment prior to releasing it.

Volunteers have begun picking up trash in the past year, from beaches on the Jersey Shore up to California. Hong Kong, and the UK, have constantly been finding discarded personal protective equipment. The New Jersey’s Clean Ocean Action environmental group had released its annual tally of garbage collected from the state’s shorelines. Apart from the food wrappers, cigarette butts, and plastic that each year defile the sand, the volunteers collected around 1,113 masks and other virus-related protective gear from New Jersey beaches.

Discarded gloves and masks began showing up on beaches not long after the virus began circulating across the world last year and has continued appearing since individuals who are exhausted from quarantining often escape to the beach to relax.

According to the Ocean Conservancy group, in the latter half of 2020, over 107,000 items of PPE from all over the world were collected by volunteers. This number is believed to be an undercount of the year’s actual totals.

Once this disposable PPE is out in the environment, it starts acting like any other form of single-use plastic, which never breaks down. Rather, it ends up breaking into tiny pieces and enduring permanently. These particles also then enter the food chain and impact the entire ecosystem. A recent study also revealed that a single disposable mask could shed up to 173,000 microfibers in a single day — tiny plastic fibers.

Last year after the lockdown, Subhash Chandran – the scuba diving center Platypus Escapes founder- had gone for their first underwater clean-up on Rushikonda beach in Visakhapatnam. The seabed was floating with N-95 surgical and cloth masks and other biomedical waste. They collected over 1500kg of waste over three rounds. The founder of Aahwahan Foundation – Braja Kishore Pradhan, informed that 10,000 masks, 1050 gloves, and PPE kits were discarded along the coastline of Juhu beach during the clean-up drives held from May-August. Fishermen from the Trichina Kuppam road in Tiruvottiyur, Chennai, found masks, blood bags, syringes, and testing equipment dumped along the seacoast. Biomedical waste has also been traced in the Anakaputhur and Mannivakkam lakes in Chennai. The water bodies in Otteri Nalla, Puzhal, Vandalur, Maduravoyal, Porur, and Muttukadu had always been dumping grounds for medical supplies. A government hospital bed, before COVID-19, would generate around half a kg of biomedical waste per day which has now increased and gone up to 3-5 kg per day.

  • What can be done?

According to OceansAsia, last year, over 1.5 billion masks found their way into the oceans all around the world, accounting for around 6,200 extra tons of marine plastic pollution. There is already evidence that masks are magnifying the threat to marine life.

As the pandemic has been taking its hits throughout the year, there has been a shift where more people are using reusable cloth masks, but many continue to opt for the lighter, disposable varieties. Campaigners have urged people to dispose of the masks properly and snip the straps to reduce the risk of animals getting entangled in them. Oceania has also requested governments to increase fines for those dumping waste and encourage washable masks.

It is gauged that Asian rivers are accountable for 86% of the total global plastic emission to the ocean. There has been an increasing number of reports about the ocean plastic problem and a heightened awareness of its urgency. As we move forward, we must make an effort to keep ourselves informed. Simultaneously, it is also our responsibility to free the oceans of plastic in the best possible way. Holding clean-ups or volunteering to clean the plastic that exists in the oceans today is an intensive effort to which you may not be able to contribute directly. However, we can ensure that the plastic entering the ocean in the future is constantly reduced. There’s still a lot of work to do, but this long struggle will eventually wipe out or at least reduce ocean plastic pollution if we show our commitment.

Written by: Edlyn Cardoza

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