194,000,000,000 Face Masks Spark Fear Of Global Plastic Crisis

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An environmentalist has shared alarming footage that shows her collecting pieces of personal protective equipment (PPE) from the sea, including various face masks and gloves.

Emily Stevenson, aka the Beach Guardian, has spoken out about the major threat PPE poses for the environment and ocean, having found 171 pieces of PPE during a single one-hour litter pick in Cornwall.


On a previous litter pick on the very same route, Emily, 23, found just six PPE items, suggesting a worrying rise. Unfortunately, this is only the tip of the iceberg, with Emily’s footage shedding light on a global issue.

You can watch footage of Emily in action below:


Marine biologist Emily co-founded The Beach Guardian project with her father Rob back in 2017. The pair have since organised more than 200 community litter-picks; bringing together over 6,000 volunteers, and collecting tons of single use plastic from the sea.


Now, Emily has seen a change in the litter they are collecting during the ongoing pandemic, with their finds moving away from carrier bags and straws to items such as face masks and gloves.

Emily said:

Though this may be a timely issue now, it’s unfortunately not one that is going to go away any time soon either. We’ve already found evidence of PPE actually sinking below the ocean surface.

This means that there could be a totally unaccounted for concentration of PPE pollution on the seafloor, which can remain as dormant debris for centuries.

Once on the seafloor, it smothers any biological structures such as important Sea Fan beds in the UK, or coral reefs further afield.

Also, this debris entails a ‘plasticising’ effect when on the seafloor – potentially inhibiting gas exchange between the water column and sediment.


This week, the volunteers participated in a #PaddleForPPE along the Camel Estuary, a broad tidal river valley that flows directly into the Atlantic Ocean. Within just five minutes, they found a face mask floating in the water.

According to Emily, this was the first time she was left ‘legitimately frightened by PPE pollution’:

To see it in the water, in the environment that holds my heart and my passion. To see it at home, on my doorstep. It hit me very hard.

It is crucial we remain hopeful, however. The saving grace of COVID-19 has been our unity; the whole world has faced the virus together.

If we continue with the same global collaboration, we can resolve this. PPE is in all of our lives; we use it or see it every day. But it is for this very reason that we can all do something about it.

It is those daily, individual, small steps that happen on a global scale that is going to be our greatest ally in this fight against plastic.


According to Emily, research shows that if every person in the UK wore a single use face mask each day over the course of one year, this would lead to an additional 57,000 tonnes of hard-to-recycle plastic as well as an additional 66,000 tonnes of contaminated PPE waste.

As per a recent study published in the Environment, Science & Technology journal, an estimated 129 billion face masks and 65 billion gloves are being used every single month globally, resulting in ‘widespread environmental contamination’.

This study emphasised the need to look at alternatives which would allow for the reduction of PPE while reinforcing awareness on how such items should be properly used and disposed of.

If you have a story you want to tell, send it to UNILAD via [email protected]

Topics: News, Cornwall, Face Masks, Now


Environment, Science & Technology journal
  1. Environment, Science & Technology journal

    COVID-19 Pandemic Repercussions on the Use and Management of Plastics

Julia Banim
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