These days, we’re spending a lot of time at our local waters. Whether you’re an ocean enthusiast, lake lover, or river swimmer, chances are you’ve taken refuge in a nearby waterbody during Covid-19.

Have you noticed anything unusual on the shores of your favourite swimming spot? Plastic pollution from Covid-19 (like masks, gloves, disinfectant wipes, and more) has been found everywhere from Hong Kong’s uninhabited Soko Islands to the French Riviera to the shores of Lake Ontario.

Covid-19 has created a new type of plastic pollution.

Worldwide, Covid-19 has reduced pollution in the air, but it has increased pollution on land and in the water. The personal protective equipment (PPE) we use to protect ourselves from getting sick is showing up on beaches, in harbours, and in coastal waters.

A face mask floating alongside other plastic debris in the Toronto Harbour. Photo by Toronto Water Monitoring Hub

Here are 3 things you need to know about Covid-19 plastic pollution

1. How does Covid-19 plastic pollution end up in the water?

All too often, the things we flush down our toilets end up in our waterbodies. This can happen when combined sewer systems overflow or when wastewater treatment plants don’t filter out large items.

Masks, gloves, and disinfectant wipes are often mistakenly flushed down the toilet, even though they should always be put into the garbage. Even wipes that are labelled ‘flushable’ can clog sewers.

If you’re curious about what you can (and can’t) flush down the toilet, check out Will it flush? The novel coronavirus special edition

Personal protective equipment may also end up in the water as litter. Anything that is thrown on the ground will likely be carried to the water by stormwater runoff from heavy rainfall.

Photo by Stuart Rankin

2. How does Covid-19 plastic pollution harm waterbodies and aquatic ecosystems?

Birds, fish, and other marine creatures often mistake large pieces of plastic pollution for food. Animals who eat plastic may choke on it. If they do successfully swallow a piece of plastic, the plastic may not be unable to exit their system. When this happens, they can starve to death.

Once they’re in the water, masks, gloves, and wipes will eventually disintegrate, but they will never fully disappear. Over time, these items break down into tiny bits of plastic called microplastics.

Microplastics have been found in the seafood we eat and even in our drinking water. Microplastics can harm the growth and reproduction of zooplankton, mussels, and oysters. They can cause abrasions and internal tissue damage in larger animals if they do not pass through the animal’s system quickly.

Photo by Florida Sea Grant

3. How can I reduce Covid-19 plastic pollution?

1. Know where to dispose of Covid-19 personal protective equipment (PPE)

Always dispose of your Covid-19 gear in the right place. Put face masks, gloves, and wipes in the garbage. Never flush any of these items or throw them on the ground. Recycle empty plastic hand sanitizer bottles or wipe containers.

2. Stop using gloves (or use them less frequently)

Gloves aren’t necessary in most situations, and if you aren’t extremely careful while wearing, taking off, and changing gloves, they can actually spread the virus. Instead of wearing synthetic gloves, wash your hands, use hand sanitizer, or wear heavy cloth gloves.

3. Wear a cloth mask

Reusable cloth masks are an effective alternative to disposable masks. Using a cloth mask is better for the environment and it saves medical masks for frontline workers. Swim Drink Fish, the nonprofit behind the Swim Guide initiative, sells 100% cotton masks that are ultra-comfy.

Get your Swim Drink Fish face mask here to help restore and protect swimmable, drinkable, fishable waters.

Photo by Swim Drink Fish

While we’re keeping ourselves safe from Covid-19, we need to ensure that we’re keeping our waterbodies safe from our pollution.

While you’re enjoying the water during the pandemic, consider picking up any plastic you see on the beach. You can also take a photo of the pollution and submit it to Gassy, our photo submission tool. Documenting pollution helps us capture important data about our waters.

Help us continue providing important Covid-19 and water quality information by donating to Swim Guide today.

Stay safe during Covid-19 with our guidance for beaches and recreational areas worldwide

Find more ways to keep your local waters clean:

5 Easy Things You Can Do at Home to Make Your Local Waters Cleaner
5 More Easy Things You Can Do at Home to Make Your Local Waters Cleaner

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