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April 08, 2021

Mask pollution: More than 1,100 PPE items were removed from Jersey Shore last year

The material in masks does not easily break down and by some estimates could take as long as 450 years to decompose

Pollution COVID-19
Face mask pollution Vladimir Smirnov/TASS/Sipa USA

Face masks and other PPE are turning up on beaches around the world.

Discarded personal protective equipment being worn by people to stop the spread of COVID-19, such as face masks and gloves, are turning up on beaches around the world. 

In New Jersey, volunteer trash collectors picked up 1,113 masks and other COVID-related protective gear, according to the state's Clean Ocean Action environmental group.

"N.J. towns and municipalities are witnessing increased dumping and littering of used masks and disposable gloves," the COA said. "All litter eventually finds its way to the ocean and will end up as marine debris."

Typically candy wrappers, cigarette butts and plastic pile up on beaches, but used masks and gloves started showing up right after the pandemic, NBC4 reported.

Around the world, more than 107,000 discarded PPE items were collected, which COA said is a vast undercount of the true pollution numbers. A report out of Ocean Asia estimated that 1.5 billion masks entered the world's oceans in 2020.

"Used correctly PPE saves lives; disposed of incorrectly it kills marine life," said Cindy Zipf, the group’s executive director. "PPE litter is a gross result of the pandemic, and 100% avoidable. Use PPE properly, then dispose of it properly in a trash can. It’s not hard and it’s the least we can do for this marvel of a planet we all live on, not to mention ourselves."

The material in masks does not easily break down and by some estimates could take as long as 450 years to decompose. 

Wildlife is also impacted by the tossed aside masks. There have been increasing reports of sea birds getting tangled and conservationists worry that marine life could try to eat the masks or gloves, causing them to die.

The COA's spring 2021 beach sweeps start April 17 across the Jersey Shore.

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