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Millions of tons of COVID masks, gloves will end up in the oceans

By Cara Murez

HealthDay Reporter

TUESDAY 9 Nov. 2021 (HealthDay News) – While the restrictions of the pandemic perhaps the planet’s atmosphere has done a favor, a new study predicts that discarded masks, gloves and face shields will add more than 25,000 tons of plastic waste to the world’s oceans.

Researchers from Nanjing University’s School of Atmospheric Sciences in China and the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) Scripps Institution of Oceanography have used a new model to project how much pandemic-related plastic waste will be there and where it is going.

The researchers found that a total of 8 million tonnes would be produced, with a significant portion of this marine plastic debris ending up on beaches or in the seabed within three to four years.

A smaller amount will enter the open sea, where it will be trapped in the middle of basins or subtropical waves and a circumpolar plastic accumulation zone in the Arctic Ocean.

Most of the global plastic waste entering the sea comes from Asia and is hospital waste, the researchers found, using data from the start of the pandemic in 2020 to August 2021.

“When we started doing the math, we were surprised to find that the amount of medical waste was significantly greater than the amount of waste from individuals, and much of it comes from Asian countries, although this is not where most of the COVID -19 cases are. was, “says study co-author Amina Schartup, an assistant professor at Scripps Oceanography.

“The biggest sources of excess waste were hospitals in areas that were already struggling with waste management before the pandemic; they just weren’t set up to deal with a situation where you had more waste,” she noted in a UCSD news release.

Most of the plastic enters the sea from rivers, and these areas require special attention in the management of plastic waste, the study authors noted.

About 73% of plastic waste was in Asian rivers. The top three contributors were the Shatt al-Arab, Indus and Yangtze rivers. These waterways flow into the Persian Gulf, Arabian Sea and East China Sea.


European rivers were second, with 11% of discharges. Other continents made small contributions to the plastic waste, the findings showed.

The new model from Nanjing University is built on Newton’s laws of motion and the law of conservation of mass, and works like ‘a virtual reality’, explains Yanxu Zhang, corresponding author and a professor at the School of Atmospheric Sciences. Nanjing University.

“The model simulates how the seawater moves driven by wind and how the plastic floats on the surface of the ocean, is broken down by sunlight, polluted by plankton, ends up on beaches and sank to the depths,” Zhang said. “It can be used to answer ‘what if’ questions, for example, what will happen if we add a certain amount of plastic to the sea?”

A circulation pattern in the sea means that a small amount of the plastic eventually circulates or settles in the Arctic Ocean, which is already considered vulnerable due to its harsh environment and high sensitivity to climate change. It appears to be a “dead end” for plastic debris transported in it due to ocean circulation patterns, according to the authors.

About 80% of the plastic debris crossing into the Arctic Ocean will sink rapidly, and a circumpolar plastic accumulation zone is modeled to form by 2025.

The study authors called for better management of medical waste in epicentres, especially in developing countries, as well as global public awareness of the environmental impact of personal protective equipment (PPE) and other plastic products. They also proposed the development of innovative technologies for better collection, classification, treatment and recycling of plastic waste, and the development of more environmentally friendly materials.

“Indeed, COVID-related plastics are only part of a larger problem we face in the 21st century: plastic waste,” Zhang said. “Solving it requires a lot of technical overhaul, economic transition and lifestyle change.”

More information

The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has more on plastic waste in the sea.

SOURCE: University of California, San Diego, news release, Nov. 8 2021

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