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With 194 BILLION masks and gloves used monthly, new wave of pollution hits oceans and beaches

A new, sad side effect of the pandemic is millions of pieces of discarded personal protective equipment (PPE) that is littering the planet in shocking ways.

Elias Marat

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(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.

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.

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.”

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.

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Environment

Biden Expected to Cancel Keystone XL Pipeline Permit on Day One

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President-elect Joe Biden is reportedly planning on the day of his inauguration to rescind a federal permit allowing construction of the Keystone XL pipeline in the United States, a move environmentalists said would represent an immense victory for the planet attributable to years of tireless Indigenous-led opposition to the dirty-energy project.

CBC News reported Sunday that “the words ‘Rescind Keystone XL pipeline permit’ appear on a list of executive actions supposedly scheduled for Day One of Biden’s presidency,” which begins with his swearing-in on Wednesday. The withdrawal of the Keystone XL permit is among several environment-related actions Biden plans to take via executive order during his first day in office, a list that includes rejoining the Paris climate accord.

“A huge victory for Lakota and Indigenous front liners and Water Protectors. None of this would have been possible without their sacrifices,” Nick Estes, a citizen of the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe and an assistant professor of American studies at the University of New Mexico, tweeted in response to Biden’s reported plan for Keystone XL, a sprawling $8 billion tar sands project that the Trump administration repeatedly sought to advance amid legal challenges and widespread grassroots resistance.

Kendall Mackey, Keep It in the Ground campaign manager for 350.org, said in a statement late Sunday that preventing construction of the Keystone XL pipeline in the U.S. would be a “momentous sign” that Biden “is listening, taking action, and making good on his promises to people and the planet.”

“This decision to halt the Keystone XL pipeline on day one in office sets a precedent that all permitting decisions must pass a climate test and respect Indigenous rights,” said Mackey. “We expect the administration to make similar announcements on Dakota Access Pipeline and Line 3. We celebrate this great victory and the powerful movement to keep fossil fuels in the ground.”

“By ensuring that Keystone XL is reversed,” Mackey continued, “Biden is standing on the side of tribal nations, farmers, ranchers, and many communities whose livelihoods would be wrecked by this dirty pipeline.”

News of Biden’s Inauguration Day plan was met with howls of protest from right-wing Canadian politicians such as Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, who issued a statement Sunday threatening legal action if Biden follows through on yanking the permit for Keystone XL, owned by Canada-based company TC Energy. Last March, as Common Dreams reported, the government of Alberta committed around $1.1 billion USD to the pipeline project.

“I am deeply concerned by reports that the incoming administration of President-elect Joe Biden may repeal the presidential permit for the Keystone XL border crossing,” Kenney tweeted, a response that was immediately panned by climate activists.

In a last-ditch effort to rescue its long-delayed Keystone XL project, TC Energy is reportedly “committing to spend $1.7 billion on solar, wind, and battery power to operate the partially completed 2,000-mile pipeline system between Alberta, in western Canada, and Texas,” according to the Wall Street Journal.

The attempt to brand Keystone XL as an environmentally friendly and sustainable energy project was swiftly ridiculed, with one journalist accusing TC Energy of a “desperate” effort to put “lipstick on its pig.”

Dallas Goldtooth, Keep It in the Ground campaign organizer for the Indigenous Environmental Network, said in response to Biden’s plan to rescind the pipeline permit that “our communities have been fighting KXL for over a decade, tooth and nail, in the dirt and in the courts.”

“We formed an immensely powerful, unlikely alliance of voices and we never gave up,” said Goldtooth. “I will wait for the ink to dry before I fully celebrate, but s*** this feels good.”

Republished from CommonDreams.org under Creative Commons

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Environment

Mexico Decrees Ban on GMO Corn and Monsanto’s Glyphosate Weed Killer

Elias Marat

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Mexico’s President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has rung in the New Year by decreeing an end to the use of glyphosate – best known as the active ingredient in Monsanto’s “Roundup” pesticides – and also ordering the phase-out out of genetically modified corn for use in the food industry, with both goals to be realized by January 2024.

The move has been widely hailed by organic food producers and environmental, health, and social justice advocates, who welcome the move as crucial to preserve Mexico’s native corn crops, national heritage, and food sovereignty from the threat of multinational food corporations.

On Thursday, the government published an official decree stating that federal biosecurity authorities would “revoke and refrain from granting permits for the release of genetically modified corn seeds into the environment,” reports Reforma news agency.

The decree noted that the object of the decision, which came after months of unsuccessful pushback from lobbyist groups representing the massive food industry, was to “contribute to food security and sovereignty” and protect “native corn, cornfields, bio-cultural wealth, farming communities, gastronomic heritage and the health of Mexicans.”

The move makes good on promises by President Lopez Obrador, popularly known by his initials AMLO, to preserve native corn varieties from the threat of GMO corn.

The government of Mexico has taken numerous steps in recent months to safeguard the over 60 types of corn developed with traditional and indigenous agricultural methods that are, by law, considered a part of Mexico’s national food and cultural heritage.

Indigenous peoples in the Mesoamerican region cultivated the first strains of corn thousands of years ago, but multinational corporations have been flooding the Mexican market with varieties of corn that have been genetically modified to resist certain types of infestations and adverse climate conditions such as drought.

The government also ordered the phase-out of GMO corn imports for use in the food industry and decreed the elimination of the chemical glyphosate – the active ingredient in Bayer-Monsanto’s weedkiller, Roundup.

While a total ban on glyphosate isn’t yet possible in Mexico – especially amid major pushback from Big Ag lobbyists – federal agencies must immediately halt “purchasing, using, distributing, promoting and importing glyphosate or agrochemicals that contain it as an active ingredient,” according to the decree.

Instead, they must use “culturally appropriate” alternatives such as low-toxicity agrochemicals and organic products.

Opponents of the use of genetically modified crops have hailed the ban.

“It’s a great victory,” said Homero Blas, the director of the Mexican Society of Organic Producers. His group, like many other civil society organizations, blames GMO crops for contaminating the native, ancient varieties of corn while saying that the widespread use of dangerous pesticides endangers the health of both producers and consumers while undermining biodiversity.

However, GMO advocates such as the National Agricultural Council (CAN) claim that the prohibition of GMO corn cultivation will harm farmers while curbing imports will harm the Mexican food chain.

“The lack of access to production options puts us at a disadvantage compared to our competitors, such as corn farmers in the United States,” said CNA spokeswoman Laura Tamayo, who is also the regional director for the German multinational Bayer AG, the parent company to agro-chemical subsidiary Monsanto.

Glyphosate has been at the center of safety concerns in numerous countries and has also been the focus of massive lawsuits in the U.S. in recent years over the allegedly carcinogenic effects of the herbicide Roundup, which Monsanto introduced in 1974.

In July, Bayer agreed to pay as much as $10.9 billion to settle nearly 100,000 lawsuits in the U.S. claiming that the chemical causes a type of blood cancer.

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Over 1.5 BILLION Face Masks Now Believed to Be Polluting Oceans Thanks to 2020

Elias Marat

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As 2020 draws to a close, one of the most recognizable symbols of the year may be the protective face mask.

As the novel coronavirus swept across the globe earlier this year, billions of people began wearing the face coverings, with one study estimating that no less than 129 billion face masks were being used every month around the world.

However, as face masks have become ubiquitous in our day-to-day lives, they’ve also grown to litter every corner of our neighborhoods, from storm drains to creeks, parks to beaches.

And now, it turns out that our oceans are swimming with face masks, according to a new report from marine conservation NGO OceansAsia.

“Once plastic enters the marine environment, it’s very difficult to move,” Dr. Teale Phelps Bondaroff, the group’s director of research, told Denver 7.

“The fact that we are starting to find masks that are breaking up indicates that this is a real problem, that microplastics are being produced by masks,” Bondaroff said.

The Hong Kong-based group estimates that some 1.56 billion face masks will have flooded our oceans in 2020 alone – a grim statistic that they have witnessed firsthand since face masks began washing up on a small island off the coast of the Chinese mega-city since the start of the pandemic.

The masks could become yet another major contributor to the ongoing crisis of plastic pollution in our ocean, with disposable face masks taking as long as 450 years to break down.

The single-use masks that are recommended by health authorities and used as personal protective equipment in hospitals across the world are made of multiple layers of polypropylene, which are thin fibers of plastic.

And with 52 billion masks being manufactured in this year, with the average weight of each single-use polypropylene surgical face mask being 3 to 4 grams, we could be looking at anywhere from 4,680 to 6,240 metric tons of new marine plastic pollution.

Ocean pollution has already reached such monstrous proportions that an estimated 100 million tons of plastic can now be found in the world’s oceans, according to the United Nations. Between 80 and 90 percent of it comes from land-based sources. And according to a report prepared for the 2016 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, by 2050 it is estimated that plastic waste in the ocean will outweigh all fish.

In recent years, ocean biologists and conservationists have expressed alarm over the growing problem of plastics and microplastics 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 question that we couldn’t answer was how many [masks] are entering our oceans? We just didn’t know,” Dr. Bondaroff said.

OceansAsia’s recent study could offer some alarming clues as to the extent of the pollution, however.

“The 1.56 billion face masks that have entered our oceans in 2020 are there for the long run,” he said. “They will remain in the ocean for 450 years or more, and they’ll break into smaller pieces.”

The report notes that the global sales force of face masks has grown exponentially, increasing from $800 million in 2019 to $166 billion in 2020.

The surging sales come as health authorities like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have issued official health guidance urging U.S. residents to always wear a face mask in public in lieu of or in addition to physical distancing measures meant to help prevent person-to-person transmission of the deadly disease.

“That’s important, we need to keep people safe, but at the same time that has a lasting impact on our environment, and we’re seeing that on the beaches,” Bondaroff added.

The report requests that the public wear reusable masks when possible while also disposing of masks properly as a step toward drawing down overall consumption of single-use plastics.

The group also calls on authorities to encourage the use of reusable masks, including releasing guidelines on the proper manufacture and use of reusable masks, while also educating the public about responsibly disposing of masks, among other measures.

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