At the height of a summer devoid of festivals, holidays, clubs, and gigs, for those who could access it, nature became a rare escape from the overwhelmingly grim reality of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Trees might breathe deeply, but they rarely cough. Mountains don’t have public health campaigns etched onto their slopes. So you’d think that maybe if you could just find the right beach, far away from the crowds of Bournemouth or Brighton, you might finally get some peace.
But 2020 doesn’t work like that.
If you’ve been to a beach in the UK recently, it’s entirely likely that you stumbled upon little postcards from the virus, scattered across the sand in the form of masks and gloves.
The problem has been officially confirmed by the Marine Conservation Society (MCS), a nonprofit that fights to protect British seas, which found personal protective equipment (PPE) across almost a third (30%) of beaches for its annual Great British Beach Clean — small reminders that the pandemic has reached every corner of the country.
It was the first time it’s found PPE across so many sites.
The MCS recruited 2,124 volunteers to join the cleanup across 459 events from Sept. 18 to 25.
In total, the team explored 385 coastal areas, covering 43,958 metres of beach — with PPE items found in more than two-thirds (69%) of litter picks.
“The amount of PPE our volunteers found on beaches and inland this year is certainly of concern,” said Lizzie Prior, the coordinator for the Great British Beach Clean. “Considering mask wearing was only made mandatory in shops in England in late July, little more than three months before the Great British Beach Clean, the sharp increase in PPE litter should be a word of warning for what could be a new form of litter polluting our beaches in the future.”
Our environment is struggling with the mass of PPE equipment as a result of the #coronavirus pandemic. Our #GreatBritishBeachClean findings show almost 30% of beaches had discarded PPE on them, posing a significant threat to wildlife. pic.twitter.com/1qC3WVDM3Q— Marine Conservation Society (@mcsuk) November 6, 2020
Face masks and disposable gloves are often designed as single-use items, meaning that they pose a threat to coastal wildlife. The Guardian reports that seabirds have been pictured wrapped in the strings of masks, while other animals might confuse the items for food, potentially a fatal mistake as plastic can be dangerously difficult to break down in their stomachs.
In addition, the beach cleanup found plastic drinks bottles in 99% of its litter picks. The MCS has urged the UK government to follow Scotland in its efforts to accelerate proposals for a bottle deposit return scheme, currently scheduled to roll out from 2023. Other items found across beaches include cigarette stubs, wet wipes, and plastic strings.
“Despite lockdown, with many of us spending more time at home, littering in public spaces has continued unabated,” said Dr. Laura Foster, head of clean seas at the MCS. “Almost every single local litter pick found at least one drinks container, which is incredibly concerning.”