The environmental impact of single use masks 

By Aoife McDowell / September 3, 2020

When lockdowns were first imposed around the world one of the potential upsides was that there would be reduced use of transport and other everyday activities that are harmful to the environment. Many believed this would reduce waste that was causing pollution levels to rise. However, fast forward a few months and the coronavirus pandemic is presenting a new issue for the planet- the environmental impact of single use masks.  

 

Single use masks have become increasingly popular as face coverings in shops and public transport have become mandatory. The UN trade body, UNCTAD, estimates that global sales will total some $166 billion this year, up from around $800 million in 2019. A large number of single use masks are worn by those in the public sector. Workers in both the medical and hospitality fields  are often not allowed to wear reusable fabric masks. They also have to change disposable masks several times over the day to help prevent the spread of germs. The massive increase in the use of these single use masks has already presented obvious problems to the environment. Experts are warning of worse to come if the problem is not dealt with. 

Non-recyclable waste 

As single use masks are seen as medical waste, they are not allowed to be recycled. Most single use masks are made from plastics such as polypropylene, polyethylene and vinyl. These plastics take around 450 years to fully disintegrate. These masks often end up in landfills and will add to the already extremely harmful waste problem around the world. 

Littering 

There have also often been worrying reports of these masks being littered on streets and beaches eventually finding their way into the ocean. Environmental groups such as Ocenasia and Opération Mer Propre have begun to voice their concerns on the issue after finding increasing numbers of masks washed up on shores and beaches. Oceanasia stated that they found disposable masks “all along the high tide line and foreshore with new arrivals coming in on the current” when carrying out work on the beaches of the Soko islands. Similarly, the French nonprofit group Operation Mer Propre, found dozens of surgical masks in the Mediterranean Sea and warned there would be soon “more masks than jellyfish in the ocean” if the problem was not dealt with. 

This new plastic pollution, along with the already massive amounts of plastic washed up in the ocean every year have a detrimental impact on wildlife. Dolphins, turtles and other marine animals often mistake plastic for food and end up choking on them as a result. If these animals do not choke they can often become malnourished. This is because the plastic fills the animals without adding any nutritional benefits. 

Smaller marine animals can also find themselves caught in plastic waste and are unable to get free. The elastic used to make masks can be especially dangerous as animals can easily find themselves entangled in it. 

The UN has speculated that if historical data is a reliable indicator, it can be expected that around 75 percent of the used masks, as well as other pandemic-related waste, will end up in landfills, or floating in the seas in years to come. 

What are some solutions to stop the environmental impact of single use masks? 

 1) Always use a reusable mask when possible. 

2) If you do need to use a disposable mask dispose of it properly. Take it home and put it in a bin. 

3) Do not leave disposable masks in public, as this can not only harm the environment but spread the virus. 

4) Do not try to recycle disposable masks.

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Aoife McDowell

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