Now that people are on board with wearing masks in public, a new issue has reared its ugly head: disposing of those masks safely and properly. With more and more local governments mandating mask-wearing, there are more face masks littering our communities than ever.

Single-use masks and latex gloves are being discarded haphazardly, and finding their way to beaches, oceans, and public parks. Since masks are made using plastics like polypropylene, they aren’t biodegradable and can pose a severe threat to our ecosystems.

In February, ocean conservation organization OceansAsia posted a photo of dozens of surgical masks littering Hong Kong beaches, and the problem has only gotten worse.

Person holding discarded face masks

Photo: OceansAsia/Facebook

Discarded face masks

Photo: OceansAsia/Facebook

Gary Stokes, co-founder of OceansAsia, told The Independent, “The way I see these masks in the environment is just another addition to the ever-growing marine debris crisis our oceans are facing. No better, no worse, just shouldn’t be there in the first place. I’m waiting to hear of the first necropsy that finds masks inside a dead marine animal. It’s not a question of if, but when.”

And it’s not just Hong Kong plagued by discarded PPE. In the United States, Maria Algarra, founder of conservation organization Clean This Beach Up in Miami has noticed the growing number of plastic gloves littered and floating in the bay. To bring awareness of this disheartening trend, she started the #theglovechallenge on Instagram, asking people who come across improperly discarded gloves to snap a picture and use the hashtag.

The bright colors of latex gloves are often mistaken for food by seabirds, turtles, and other marine animals, posing serious risks to their health. In December 2019, a dead sperm whale was found on a beach in Scotland; it had 220 lbs of debris in its stomach, including plastic gloves, bags, and cups.