NJ beaches have been scarred by COVID: Here's what the pandemic left behind
An environmental group in France has warned that masks and gloves are polluting the sea as discarded PPE used during the pandemic was found. Storyful
The coronavirus pandemic is even leaving its mark on New Jersey beaches.
Volunteers removed hundreds of face masks and more than 1,000 pieces of personal protective equipment from the beaches last year, according to a new report by an environmental group that tracks this new form of pollution.
Clean Ocean Action, which organized beach cleanups at more than 60 locations across the state last fall, said 680 face masks and 92 sanitizing wipes were collected during the environmental organization's fall event.
In total, 1,113 pieces of PPE were removed from the environment during the "Beach Sweeps," according to the organization's latest report.
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An earlier spring cleanup was canceled because of the spread of COVID-19.
Clean Ocean Action began tracking litter from pandemic-related personal protective equipment, or PPE, last year.
"We started seeing it all over the streets," Executive Director Cindy Zipf said. "Wear your PPE, but be responsible and manage it properly."
Despite PPE's ubiquitousness, the litter makes up less than 1% of all the garbage removed from New Jersey beaches last fall, according to Clean Ocean Action's report.
The greatest source of pollution on these beaches — making up 72% of the litter collected — comes from plastic: shopping bags, food wrappers, bottles and caps, among other sources.
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Plastic is becoming a "global plague," Zipf said.
To combat the litter, Clean Ocean Action is seeking volunteers to help clean beaches and record litter data during its April 17 Beach Sweeps.
Last fall, Beach Sweeps volunteers collected 185,221 pieces of trash, of which 134,272 pieces were plastic, according to the new report.
As plastics enter the environment, they can entangle marine life or kill animals that eat it, according to the federal Environmental Protection Agency. Plastics can also leach chemicals and toxins into organisms and the environment, while taking centuries to break down, according to the agency.
As plastic breaks into smaller and smaller pieces, it becomes "microplastic." The material can then easily passes through water filtration systems and end up in the ocean or other bodies of water, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The agency's Marine Debris Program is researching microplastic's impact on the environment.
"We're now finding these microplastic particles in fish, all the sea creatures, even at the deepest levels of the sea," said state Sen. Bob Smith, a Democrat who chairs the Senate's Environment and Energy Committee. "When we do air sampling in the Alps, we get humongous numbers of plastic particles. So we human beings are literally eating and breathing this plastic material into our bodies."
Smith and Clean Ocean Action are urging state legislators to adopt stricter limits on single use plastics. Smith is sponsoring Senate Bill 2515, the proposed "recycled content" bill, which if approved would require paper carryout bags, plastic trash bags, and glass and plastic containers to contain a minimum recycled material content if they are sold or made in New Jersey.
The senator said too little of New Jersey's recyclables collected curbside are being used in manufacturing. When China reduced imports of American recycling products and issued tariffs on the material in 2018, recyclables had few places to go within the country.
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As a result, many recyclable products now end up in landfills, Smith said.
"Municipalities used to have a line in their budget where they at least would breakeven or maybe make a few bucks (for collecting recycling)," he said. "They now are not because there are not markets for recycled materials."
Smith hopes the recycled content bill would change that and help remove plastics and other recyclable litter from New Jersey beaches.
The senator said: "I look forward to the day when there aren't any more beach sweeps because there's no need to have a beach sweep, and we human beings are treating our resources responsibly, and that we have systems in place to keep these plastics out of the environment."
Amanda Oglesby is an Ocean County native who covers Brick, Barnegat and Lacey townships as well as the environment. She has worked for the Press for more than a decade. Reach her at @OglesbyAPP, email@example.com or 732-557-5701.