When Michiela Messner led a cleanup day at Rocky Neck State Park, she was not surprised to find a new kind of pandemic-fueled trash left behind: disposable masks.
"I was more disappointed that they found it," said Messner. "I was really upset that it has come to this too."
Messner is a volunteer with Save the Sound. Every year the Connecticut nonprofit takes part in an international coastal cleanup. This past fall, the group cleaned more than 100 miles in the state and picked up 441 pieces of PPE in one day.
"Our trash travels. Our PPE travels," said Anthony Allen with Save the Sound. "When we drop it on the ground or it flies off our ear and lands in a parking lot, it doesn't stay there."
Pandemic-related pollution is not just being seen in Connecticut. Volunteers with Ocean Conservancy, the US-based nonprofit that organizes the international cleanup efforts, logged more than 100,000 pieces of PPE picked up across the globe in the last half of 2020. They estimate the amount of PPE littering the world is actually much higher.
Heidi Dierssen, a professor of marine sciences at the University of Connecticut Avery Point, studies the ocean from satellite. Her team has spent the last five years studying plastic in the ocean, which now includes PPE.
"It is already showing up as a big problem. I just want people to realize that this is actually plastic and this will end up in the ocean if you don’t take care of where you put it," said Dierssen, holding a disposable mask.
If a mask is not disposed of correctly, Dierssen says, it can end up in the water.
"Likely because the wind could just take this off my hand, where would it go? Eventually it gets wet and it ends up in our oceans," said Dierssen.
Once a plastic makes it into the ocean, it is almost impossible to clean up. It does not completely decompose, but instead can break down into little pieces.
"And they end up as little bits floating on our sea surface, or ingested, sadly. Almost every sea turtle's stomach has little bits of plastic in it," said Dierssen.
Advocates stress that is important to cut the ear loops off your mask when throwing it out. The ear loops could cause an animal to get stuck. They say it is also important that you make sure your masks ends up in the trash can.
“Dropping that is like dropping a plastic food wrapper or a used chip bag," said Messner.