The staggering environmental impact of throw-away plastic face masks is only starting to become apparent.
A team of researchers from Denmark figured out that we are throwing away 129 billion plastic face masks around the globe every single month.
That works out to three million masks every single minute of the day.
The vast majority of these masks are plastic, single-use face coverings. The kind that have been mass produced at scale since the start of the pandemic.
These masks will have a dangerous impact on the environment. The researchers, from the University of Southern Denmark, can’t say what that is yet because there’s insufficient data. But it’s unlikely to be good.
Single-use masks are made from plastic micofibres which aren’t biodegradable. When they break down, they do so into micro and nano particles which make their way into the ecosystem. Eventually, they will end up in rivers, lakes and oceans where they have an impact on marine life.
A newer and bigger concern is that the masks are directly made from microsized plastic fibers (thickness of ~1 to 10 micrometers).
When broken down in the environment, the mask may release more micro-sized plastics, easier and faster than bulk plastics like plastic bags, the researchers write.
‘With increasing reports on inappropriate disposal of masks, it is urgent to recognize this potential environmental threat and prevent it from becoming the next plastic problem,’ the scientists wrote in the scientific journal Frontiers of Environmental Science & Engineering.
How can we fix the mask pollution problem?
As mentioned, the researchers haven’t been able to calculate the impact plastic face masks are making. They’ve only been a part of our lives for the last year, after all.
But given our understanding of plastic pollution so far, the team are confident in predicting this is a ticking time bomb in environmental terms.
‘We know that, like other plastic debris, disposable masks may also accumulate and release harmful chemical and biological substances, such as bisphenol A, heavy metals, as well as pathogenic micro-organisms,’ concludes environmental toxicologist Elvis Genbo Xu in a university release.
‘These may pose indirect adverse impacts on plants, animals and humans.’
What can we do to stop the problem? There are a few suggestions.
First, they suggest every town, city, and local village sets up mask-only litter bins where they can be safely collected. Then, officials should create standardised guidelines with strict enforcement to manage the mask waste.
Secondly, people should immediately switch from buying cheap, single-use plastic mask to a reusable fabric one that can be washed and re-worn.
Finally, manufacturers should be prioritising the development of a biodegradable disposal mask.