The Ocean Conservancy released a disappointing report about the state of beaches today. Their global survey of beaches and waterways found 107,219 personal protective equipment (PPE) items, including masks and latex gloves, littering beaches and waterways. People are not picking up and properly disposing of masks and other pandemic-related items.

It took just a year for masks and shields to become so common that 70% of surveyors found them during the annual event, and 94% of cleanup events recovered discarded PPE. The Ocean Conservancy noted that personal hygiene litter soared during 2020, growing more than 300% between January and July, before the organization started counting PPE separately. An estimated 129 billion masks and 65 billion gloves were used each month during the pandemic, according to the American Chemical Society’s journal, Environmental Science & Technology. You can download the Ocean Conservancy report for free from Dropbox.

The Ocean Conservancy found more than 100,000 items of PPE litter in under six months. “We know that’s just the tip of the iceberg,” the organization said. Our litter, unfortunately, tells the story of our lives, which have been dominated by the pandemic. But the end of COVID-19 should not be an excuse to ignore PPE waste. It’s time to up our game as individuals and organizations.

“PPE like gloves and masks has been absolutely critical in keeping the public safe throughout the pandemic,” said Nick Mallos, senior director of Ocean Conservancy’s Trash Free Seas® program. “At the same time, there’s no doubt that the resulting plastic pollution has taken a significant toll on the environment and that – like with many pollutants – the ocean is the first to bear the costs.”

The Ocean Conservancy urges PPE producers to embrace extended producer responsibility for the products they make. That would involve allocating a percentage of revenue to collecting and processing PPE, an idea under consideration in Congress for all plastics. The Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act is gaining traction in the House of Representatives. You can help pass it by contacting your representative to express support for the bill.

But, first, be sure to dispose of your masks, gloves, face shields, and wipes responsibly. If you see a mask on the ground, pick it up using a glove or litter pickup tool; sanitize the tool when you have finished. Stop these pollutants at the source, but please do it safely.

By Mitch Ratcliffe

Mitch is the publisher at and Director of Digital Strategy and Innovation at Intentional Futures, an insight-to-impact consultancy in Seattle. A veteran tech journalist, Mitch is passionate about helping people understand sustainability and the impact of their decisions on the planet.