Along with social distancing and vaccination campaigns, face masks are being used in almost all countries as nations fight the new coronavirus pandemic.
However, around the world, huge numbers of face masks are not disposed of properly and have instead ended up dumped in the countryside or the sea, where marine life can mistake them for food, washing up on beaches along with the usual plastic bags and other trash.
Every minute of the day we throw away 3 million face masks. Many end up as potentially toxic micro- and nano-plastic or carry toxins that contaminate the environment, researchers warn.
"With increasing reports on the inappropriate disposal of masks, it is urgent to recognize this potential environmental threat and prevent it from becoming the next plastic problem," researchers said in a comment in the scientific journal Frontiers of Environmental Science & Engineering.
Face masks that are being used to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic are posing a new challenge worldwide in terms of recycling as they are exacerbating another pandemic: plastic pollution.
Around 129 billion disposable masks are used every month around the world, according to the American Chemical Society.
Made out of polypropylene plastic material, elastic and metal, used masks are usually thrown out in garbage bins, destined for landfills, or incinerated.
They are also littering streets, rivers and oceans, harming wildlife.
If the data is a reliable indicator, then we can expect that around 75% of used masks and other disposable COVID-19-related protective gear will eventually end up in either landfills or the world’s oceans and seas. A study released by Oceans Asia estimates that in 2020 alone, 1.5 billion disposable masks ended up in the world’s oceans, which calculates to upward of 6,500 tons of additional plastic waste. While personal protective equipment (PPE) such as disposable masks and gloves have been deemed vital for health care workers for their safety during the COVID-19 pandemic, the ramifications if solutions are not reached will inevitably result in a major medical waste recycling crisis.
The majority of disposable PPE contains polypropylene plastic, which not only breaks up into smaller pieces creating microplastics but also can take up to 450 years to decompose. Furthermore, a study by Environmental Advances showed that in a simulated marine environment, a face mask was able to release 173,000 microfibers per day. These small elements can easily enter natural ecosystems causing havoc by negatively affecting water and air quality, killing wildlife and even entering into our own lungs and bloodstream. Microfibers can even enter the cells of marine life, which many humans enjoy eating. In addition to this, the ear straps on masks can also be death traps for animals, and especially marine life, which can get entangled in them.