(TMU) – When the COVID-19 pandemic swept across the world earlier this year, plunging much of the world into lockdown conditions, it seemed that nature was finally being given a major breather – so much so that breathless stories spread across the world about animals taking back their environs, along with memes and social media posts about how “the earth is healing.”
However, the scant silver lining of the global lockdown was much thinner than believed, and instead, the pandemic has given rise to a new, sad side effect – millions of pieces of discarded personal protective equipment (PPE) that is littering the planet in shocking ways.
According to a new study published in the Environment, Science & Technology journal, no less than 129 billion face masks and 65 billion gloves – 194 billion units of PPE in total – are being used on a monthly basis around the world, resulting in “widespread environmental contamination” and a catastrophic new wave of waste material in our oceans and rivers.
Although wearing PPE is often essential, remember to take care when throwing away used items. Not only are they hazardous to other people, it's all too easy for discarded masks and gloves to end up in watercourses.
Find a bin, do it properly.#Loveyourriver #PPE #coronavirus pic.twitter.com/QWCXSuWtNp
— Wessex Rivers Trust (@WessexRivers) August 7, 2020
To make matters worse, watchdogs with WWF (World Wildlife Fund) warned in a report earlier this year: “If only 1 percent of the masks were to be disposed of incorrectly and dispersed in nature, this would result in up to 10 million masks per month polluting the environment.”
An environmentalist in the UK is already seeing the results of the improper disposal of the mountain of PPE being used and discarded on every month.
Emily Stevenson, a marine biologist widely known as the “Beach Guardian,” recently went to collect litter from a beach in Cornwall, along England’s southwestern coast, and found no less than 171 pieces of discarded PPE only in the span of one hour – a shocking rise from the six PPE items she had found on a previous beach cleanup.
171 discarded face masks and gloves found on Cornish coastline in one hour pic.twitter.com/mUqUvvMHZP
— The Independent (@Independent) August 6, 2020
Emily and her father Rob founded The Beach Guardian project in 2017, and have organized 200 community cleanups involving 6,000 volunteers. In recent months, she has noticed how the litter they are collecting has shifted from single-use plastic bags and straws to gloves and protective face masks.
“We’ve already found evidence of PPE actually sinking below the ocean surface,” Stevenson said, according to The Independent. “This means that there could be a totally unaccounted for concentration of PPE pollution on the seafloor, which can remain as dormant debris for centuries.”
“Once on the seafloor, it smothers any biological structures such as important Sea Fan beds in the UK, or coral reefs further afield,” she continued. “Also, this debris entails a ‘plasticizing’ effect when on the seafloor – potentially inhibiting gas exchange between the water column and sediment.”
Stevenson noted that if the entire UK wears one disposable protective face mask per day for a full year, this would result in an extra 57,000 tons of plastic that is difficult to recycle – along with an additional 66,000 tons of contaminated PPE trash.
“This has been the first time I have been legitimately frightened by PPE pollution,” Stevenson said. “To see it in the water, in the environment that holds my heart and my passion. To see it at home, on my doorstep. It hit me very hard.”
1️⃣5️⃣2️⃣ plastic gloves and face masks found during today’s #LitterPick…
— Beach Guardian (@PlasticWaive) August 6, 2020
Well prior to the outbreak of the novel coronavirus pandemic, experts and conservationists were urgently warning that plastic waste was inundating the world’s oceans and water supplies, leaching carcinogenic toxins and chemicals into the marine environment, with plastic drink containers trapping and confining—and ultimately killing—marine wildlife.
The pollution has reached such monstrous proportions that an estimated 100 million tons of plastic could be found in the oceans, according to the UN. Between 80 and 90 percent of it comes from land-based sources. A report prepared for the 2016 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, warned that by 2050, plastic waste in the ocean would outweigh all fish.
Stevenson retains hope that given the unifying effect of the pandemic, people will be more open to embracing a conscientious attitude toward problems on a global scale.
“The saving grace of COVID-19 has been our unity; the whole world has faced the virus together,” she noted. “If we continue with the same global collaboration, we can resolve this. PPE is in all of our lives; we use it or see it every day. But it is for this very reason that we can all do something about it.”
“It is those daily, individual, small steps that happen on a global scale that is going to be our greatest ally in this fight against plastic,” Stevenson said.
Scientists Thrilled by Discovery of Rare, Mammoth 400-Year-Old Coral
A massive 400-year-old hard coral discovered on the Great Barrier Reef has scientists expressing their sense of surprise and excitement.
Named Muga dambhi by the Manbarra people, the Indigenous group who have traditionally taken care of the land, the “exceptionally large” brown and cream-colored coral is located off the coast of Goolboodi or Orpheus Island in the Great Barrier Reef.
It is believed that the coral was spawned some 421 to 438 years ago, meaning that its age predates the arrival of Captain James Cook and the advent of colonization in Australia, notes the Guardian.
The spectacular coral is about 35 feet wide and over 17 feet high, and is double the size of the nearest coral.
Scientists and members of the community participating in a marine science course discovered the specimen earlier this year.
While not the largest coral in the world, the huge find is of major significance to the local ecosystem, according to Adam Smith, an adjunct professor at James Cook University who wrote the field note on the find.
“It’s like a block of apartments,” Smith said. “It attracts other species. There’s other corals, there’s fish, there’s other animals around that use it for shelter or for feeding, so it’s pretty important for them.”
“It’s a bit like finding a giant redwood tree in the middle of a botanic gardens,” he added.
It is likely that the coral hasn’t been discovered for such a long time due to its location in a relatively remote and unvisited portion of a Marine National Park zone that enjoys a high degree of protection.
“Over the last 20 or 30 years, no one has noticed, or observed, or thought it newsworthy enough to share photos, or document, or do research on this giant coral,” Smith said.
The coral is in remarkable condition, with over 70 percent of its surface covered in live coral, coral rock and microalgae. No disease, bleaching or recently deceased coral has been recorded on the specimen.
“The cumulative impact of almost 100 bleaching events and up to 80 major cyclones over a period of four centuries, plus declining nearshore water quality contextualise the high resilience of this Porites coral,” the field note added.
The specific coral has been given the name Muga dhambi, meaning big coral, out of respect for the Indigenous knowledge, language, and culture of the Manbarra Traditional Owners.
Greenland Ice Washed Away as Summit Sees Rain for First Time in Recorded History
For the first time in recorded history, torrential downpours of rain have struck Greenland’s icy summit nearly two miles above sea level.
Greenland, an environmentally sensitive island, is typically known for its majestic ice sheet and snowy climate, but this is fast changing due to a massive melt taking place this summer.
However, the typical snowfall has been replaced in recent years not simply by a few showers, but by heavy rainfall. The torrential downpour last week was so huge, in fact, that it washed away a terrifying amount of ice across some 337,000 square miles of the ice shelf’s surface, reports Earther.
Temperatures at the ice shelf had simultaneously warmed to a significant degree, with the summit reaching 33 degrees Fahrenheit – within a degree above freezing and the third time that the shelf has surpassed freezing temperatures this decade.
The fact that rain is falling on ice rather than snow is also significant because it is melting ice across much of southern Greenland, which already saw huge melting events last month, while hastening rising sea levels that threaten to submerge whole coastal cities and communities.
To make matters worse, any new ice formed by the freezing rainwater will not last long. The ice shelf currently existing on Greenland was formed by the compression of snow over innumerable years, which shines bright white and reflects sunlight away rather than absorbing it, as ice from frozen rain does.
The huge scale of the melt and accompanying rainfall illustrate the growing peril of rapidly warming climate conditions across the globe.
“This event by itself does not have a huge impact, but it’s indicative of the increasing extent, duration, and intensity of melting on Greenland,” wrote Ted Scambos, a senior research scientist at the National Snow and Ice Data Center at the University of Colorado. “Like the heat wave in the [U.S. Pacific] northwest, it’s something that’s hard to imagine without the influence of global climate change.”
“Greenland, like the rest of the world, is changing,” Scambos told the Washington Post. “We now see three melting events in a decade in Greenland — and before 1990, that happened about once every 150 years. And now rainfall: in an area where rain never fell.”
South Korean Toilet Turns Poo Into Green Energy and Pays Its Users Digital Cash
What if your morning #2 not only powered your stove to cook your eggs, but also allowed you to pay for your coffee and pastry on the way to class?
It seems like an absurd question, but one university in South Korea has invented a toilet that allows human excrement to not only be used for clean power, but also dumps a bit of digital currency into your wallet that can be exchanged for some fruit or cup noodles at the campus canteen, reports Reuters.
The BeeVi toilet – short for Bee-Vision – was designed by urban and environmental engineering professor Cho Jae-weon of the Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology (UNIST), and is meant to not only save resources but also reward students for their feces.
The toilet is designed to first deliver your excrement into a special underground tank, reducing water use, before microorganisms break the waste down into methane, a clean source of energy that can power the numerous appliances that dorm life requires.
“If we think out of the box, feces has precious value to make energy and manure,” Cho explained. “I have put this value into ecological circulation.”
The toilet can transform approximately a pound of solid human waste – roughly the average amount people poop per day – into some 50 liters of methane gas, said Cho. That’s about enough to generate half a kilowatt hour of electricity, enough to transport a student throughout campus for some of their school day.
Cho has even devised a special virtual currency for the BeeVi toilet called Ggool, or honey in Korean. Users of the toilet can expect to earn 10 Ggool per day, covering some of the many expenses students rack up on campus every day.
Students have given the new system glowing reviews, and don’t even mind discussing their bodily functions at lunchtime – even expressing their hopes to use their fecal credits to purchase books.