Organizations Respond to Rising Plastic Pollution on Campus

More than 129 billion personal protective equipment (PPE) masks are made each month and half end up in the ocean. Some common items polluting the ocean are plastic bottles, grocery bags and, now, PPE masks, causing a rapid increase in plastic pollution.

It’s been almost two years since the first outbreak of COVID-19 and some are still trying to protect themselves from the virus by wearing a PPE mask. After use, some discard the mask inappropriately and masks are often seen littering the floor. This waste eventually ends up in the oceans, affecting wildlife and spreading toxins.

“Ssince marine debris is completely caused by people, it also means we have the ultimate power and responsibility to be the solution,” Shanelle Naone, a Pacific Islands Region Communications and Outreach Coordinator NOAA Marine Debris Programmentioned.

Before the pandemic began, plastic pollution was harming the ocean and threatening wildlife. This persistent problem is leading to an increase in the number of marine animals consuming plastic as food. For example, a sea turtle will mistake a face mask, which is often made with polypropylene plastic (which is used in a wide variety of applications like plastic packaging, plastic parts for machinery, fibers, etc. ) for a jellyfish.

“Marine debris poses many risks to animals,” Naone said. “A lot of marine debris can impact wildlife through ingestion. When an animal swallows debris, it can block its stomach, pierce the inside of its body with sharp edges, and even create a false sense of fullness. This can make the animal sick or starve to death.

This can lead to digestive problems or even death, and contaminated microplastics could expose organisms to high concentrations of toxins. If no action is taken now, the negative consequences for wildlife will become irreversible and, depending on World Wildlife Fund (WWF) plastic is expected to overtake all fish in the sea by 2050.

In 2020, around 1.56 million PPE masks entered the ocean. Every day the number continues to grow and if left untreated it will take around 450 years for a mask to break down in the wild, continuing to kill wildlife and harm humans in the long run.

Students for Sustainable Pollution Control on Campus

Organizations, community clubs and environmental activists are aware of marine debris and its impact on climate change. They make positive environmental changes to lower the numbers to have a global impact. At Saint Edward’s University, Students for Sustainability (SFS) is one of the largest organizations on campus and the leading voice for sustainability. It is an entirely student-run chartered organization and is dedicated to advocating for a more sustainable campus.

When the university mandated PPE masks indoors, more face masks were spotted around campus. On March 7, the university made wearing a mask indoors optional.

“We have seen an increase in the number of disposable masks on campus,” said Ethan Tobias, SFS president and sustainability intern.

SFS is finding solutions by increasing the number of trash pick-up events both on campus and in Blunn Creek, where rain-washed trash and plastic pollution end up, which will help combat the problem.

“We try to organize as many events as possible that deal with sustainability and environmentalism,” Tobias said. To attack the root of the problem, we actively advocate for a shift from single-use plastic to compostable options or more circular products. Just recently, we managed to convince Bon Appétit (the company that manages the catering on campus) to switch from plastic bags to compostable bags. »

SFS encourages its community to participate in monthly trash pickup events and recycle plastic waste in disposal bins around campus. They also suggest wearing eco-friendly face masks and recommend that others who wear PPE masks cut the ear loop straps off face masks before throwing them in the trash.

The student assigns

SFS promotes its activism on campus and via social media, but how many students are shocked that PPE masks are causing an increase in plastic pollution?

“That doesn’t shock me,” said senior Sarah Fitzgibbons. “I feel like in times of intense crisis, things that we usually consider high priorities tend to get pushed aside. For example, if I’m concerned about my impending safety, I worry less about my impact on the environment. I’m not saying I don’t care about the environment, but it’s human nature to put yourself first.

The majority of students have seen an increase in the removal of PPE masks on campus grounds. Half expressed feelings of being disturbed and knowing the long-term effects this has on the environment. The others have expressed concern that they don’t know how to remedy the situation because they don’t want to risk being affected by taking one.

“I’ve noticed PPE masks lying on the ground pretty much everywhere I go,” senior Courtney Davila said. “I find it disgusting and quite boring. Trash has always made me feel uncomfortable, not only does it make our environment look trashy, but it also causes damage to our environment and the creatures within it.

Texas Statewide Mask Mandates

On March 4, Austin-Travis County moved to Stage 2 of risk-based guidelines, and on March 7, St. Edward’s University updated its COVID-19 guidelines by making the wearing of optional PPE masks.

“Please be mindful of members of the campus community who may still choose to wear face coverings or who may not be comfortable around others who do not wear face coverings. Individuals cannot independently require face coverings for events, gatherings or classes on campus,” said one. statement on the university’s website says.

It’s been more than a month since the mandate was lifted and half the population still chooses to wear a mask.

The pandemic is causing an increase in plastic pollution by affecting the oceans, wildlife and the spread of toxins. People need to know how to pivot to sustainability, dispose of their waste and recycle responsibly, because these actions are only half the battle to reduce plastic pollution and save the environment.

Bryce K. Locke