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.
“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.
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.