Cleaning up the plastic pollution pandemic

The pandemic has seen a surge in single-use plastics, with disposable masks, gloves and other PPE equipment ceaselessly washing up on beaches across the globe. If we act now to tackle the urgent issue of plastic pollution, this could be a pivotal moment in the fight for cleaner oceans, writes Howard Angel, marine ecologist

Free Diver Sahika Encumen dives amid plastic waste on the Ortakoy coastline

The Covid-19 crisis has brought many issues into much sharper focus over the course of the past twelve months – and ocean pollution is certainly one of them. The pandemic has sadly served to exacerbate an already concerning plastic pollution problem that has been plaguing our oceans for many years. Pre-Covid, our seas were in a sorry state, with eight million metric tonnes of plastic waste ending up in our oceans each year – that’s the equivalent of a truckload of plastic being dumped into the sea every single minute. For our fragile ocean ecosystems, this is quite simply catastrophic. Fish, marine mammals and seabirds often mistake floating plastic for prey, with many regrettably passing away as a result of ingesting this harmful material. In fact, at least 267 different species are known to have been affected by plastic pollution, while up to 90 percent of seabirds are thought to have pieces of plastic in their stomachs.

Since the onset of the pandemic, meanwhile, the situation has only worsened. One unfortunate societal side effect of Covid-19 has been an explosion in single-use plastics. Each month, an estimated 129 billion face masks and 65 billion latex gloves are discarded across the globe, with much of this waste ending up in our oceans. Polymers in this personal protective equipment (PPE) are breaking down into microplastics, which are easily consumed by both marine wildlife and the delicate coral reefs that play such an essential role in our ocean systems.

Divers from the Mediterranean through to the Philippines have found discarded single-use masks and gloves washing up on shorelines and covering seabeds, in what has been a dire but important reminder of how our actions of today will affect our oceans of tomorrow. Organisations such as French non-profit Opération Mer Propre and the global Professional Association of Diving Instructors have been on a mission to tackle this urgent issue, working to remove plastic waste from the waters on litter-collection drives and attempting to publicly raise awareness of the Covid impact on our oceans.

But along with sounding the alarm on this looming litter crisis, diving organisations across the globe are also using the enforced downtime of the Covid-19 lockdowns to pause and reflect on how they can make their operations all the more sustainable when they are able to reopen once more. Travel bans and national lockdowns may be keeping many divers out of the water for now, but this break in activity serves as a moment for the industry to plan and prepare for a greener post-Covid future. Indeed, British charity The Reef-World Foundation is calling on dive and snorkel operators to keep sustainability at the very top of their agendas both during and beyond the Covid-19 crisis, calling upon those in the industry to do all they can to further reduce their environmental impact when they are able to safely restart operations. There are many ways that companies can ensure environmental best practise, from enacting “no touch” policies when reef diving to using mooring buoys instead of anchoring. Going forward, litter collection and effective waste management should also be at the forefront of divers’ minds as they enter the water – after all, every little helps when it comes to keeping our oceans clean. We may have a great challenge ahead of us, but it’s time to strike while the iron is hot and to create the sustainable future that we so desperately want to see post-pandemic.

Howard Angel is a marine ecologist who regularly writes about diving and the conservation of our oceans