Preliminary data showed a total of 62,210 PPE items were collected during the International Coastal Cleanup event in September
gloves and mask in ocean
Gloves and masks in ocean
| Credit: Getty

Environmentalists are growing worried about the impact that littered PPE will have on the world's oceans amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

During the annual International Coastal Cleanup event last month, preliminary data showed that a total of 62,210 PPE items, included single-use masks and rubber gloves, were gathered from oceans and beach shorelines around the world, CNN reported.

The findings were historic in that they marked the first time that PPE was listed as a data category for the clean-up event, which began more than 30 years ago by the nonprofit organization, Ocean Conservancy, according to the outlet.

"We absolutely believe that PPE waste is a significant threat to oceans and marine life," Dr. George Leonard, a chief scientist with Ocean Conservancy, said in a statement to CNN.

According to Ocean Conservancy's website, the International Coastal Cleanup focuses on clearing trash from beaches as well as preserving/protecting the world's oceans and waterways.

Besides PPE, some of the most common items that people collect from the waters include food wrappers, cigarette butts, plastic bottles and bottle caps, straws, plastic grocery bags and plastic take-out containers, the nonprofit's 2019 report states.

Last year, 122 countries participated in the clean-up event with a total of 23,333,816 pounds of trash collected worldwide, according to the report.

However, this year, preliminary data obtained by CNN seems to show that a total of 76 countries involved and at least 1.6 million pounds of trash have been collected, but an Ocean Conservancy representative tells PEOPLE they are still expecting the bulk of its data to come in over the next few months.

Additionally, it is estimated that 129 billion face masks and 65 billion gloves are being used and mismanaged globally during the pandemic, which is leading to "widespread environmental contamination," according to the Environmental Science & Technology journal.

With so much garbage being pulled from the world's oceans and beach shorelines, Leonard told the outlet he is worried about humans permanently destroying sea creatures' habitats, especially as the pandemic continues with no immediate end in sight.

"There's enhanced demand and use of single-use plastics like bags and containers by consumers and businesses for groceries and food takeout," Leonard explained, according to CNN. "Then there's the global use of disposable masks and gloves. No one would have thought a few months ago that the entire world would be using them."

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Chad Nelsen, the CEO of the California nonprofit organization Surfrider Foundation, which also works to protect the oceans and beaches, echoed Leonard's sentiments and emphasized the urgency in finding a solution.

"A much as 80 percent of plastic waste in oceans comes from land," Nelsen told the outlet. "Every mask or glove that you see on the street that's not picked up will most likely go into a storm drain, into a river then into the ocean."

"Also, people may not realize that these blue masks and gloves have plastic in them," he continued. "So what we're using just for a couple of minutes can last on Earth for thousands of years. It won't biodegrade. When it does decompose into microplastics, it will be digested by animals on land and my marine wildlife."

"We're just scratching the surface of this threat," Nelsen added to CNN. "If we are not concerned or careful, it could become a big setback and a disastrous situation for oceans."

Those interested in helping Ocean Conservancy with their clean-up and preservation efforts can do so here.