In pandemic, single-use plastics, PPE cause concerns about environment

VIDEO: In pandemic, PPE causing concerns for beaches, waterways

CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - The very items designed to keep us safe are setting back conservation efforts. 

Kelly Thorvalson is the conservation programs manager at the South Carolina Aquarium. She says there has been a noticeable uptick in litter. Single-use plastic and personal protective gear, like masks, are among the biggest offenders. 

“Before the pandemic, we saw a lot of movement around mitigating plastic pollution not only here in South Carolina but across the globe. I feel like the world was waking up to the issue,” Thorvaldsen said. “The pandemic pumped the breaks on that. Not only pumped the breaks, but turned us in the opposite direction of using more single us plastic than we had ever before.”

As part of the response to the coronavirus, masks were mandated, restaurants shifted to take out and single-use everything, and municipal plastic bans were temporarily lifted.

“They had to switch to single-use products to be as safe as possible. Unfortunately, plastic products are the cheapest of the take out options,” Thorvalson said. “The supply chain for sustainable options was struggling when takeout really ramped up. So there are lots of reasons for why we had to go to single-use.”

Plastic may be cheap, but it’s nearly impossible to fully breakdown. Instead, it simply breaks into smaller and smaller pieces. 

“Then you have the smallest animals eating it whether it’s fish or shrimp and then it just working its way up the food chain,” Lauren Rust, the executive director of the Lowcountry Marine Mammal Network, said. “Then it gets into the food that we are eating.”

Rust says she is also seeing more plastic and disposable masks than normal.

“I don’t know why we couldn’t stick with paper,” Rust said. “I understand not bringing in your bags [to a grocery store] and things like that. But we reverted to our old ways very quickly and I don’t know if it was all necessary.”

Both women agree the safety measures taken to slow the coronavirus are important.

“I think now that we know that COVID-19 is not going anywhere for a while and we do see how these products are ending up in our waterways and beaches it is time to start doing what we can to remedy that,” Thorvalson said.

To that end, the Aquarium launched a new conservation effort called the Pam and Michael Wilson Plastic-Free Waters Program.  They are planning a beach cleanup on Kiawah Island in September.

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