Before the coronavirus pandemic, people used to wear face masks to protect themselves from air pollution. With the spread of COVID-19, the use of face masks has jumped dramatically worldwide. As a result, many environmentalists are concerned that such a huge consumption will lead to large-scale waste generation and subsequent pollution of the land and oceans.
Face mask pollution
OceansAsia, an environmental group, researched Hong Kong’s Soko Island to determine the impact of face masks on the environment. They discovered that many of the surgical masks were washing up on the shoreline. Most were not that old, with many of them almost looking brand new.
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“We have found 70 discarded masks within 100 meters of the beach and an additional 30 masks when we returned a week later. Over time the team has seen the odd mask here and now, however, this time they were all along the high tide line and foreshore with new arrivals coming in on the current. When you suddenly have a population of seven million people wearing one to two masks per day the amount of trash generated is going to be substantial,” Gary Stokes, OceanAsia’s Founder, said to Energy Live News.
Worldwide, it is estimated that COVID-19 triggered the use of 65 billion gloves and 129 billion face masks per month. Greenpeace Taiwan calculated that Taiwan used around 1.3 billion surgical masks between February and May, generating waste to the tune of 5,500 metric tons. The urgency of the CCP coronavirus pandemic means that governments across the world have merely looked into manufacturing as many masks as possible, without establishing proper channels for their disposal.
Carelessly discarded face masks pose numerous threats to the environment. For one, such masks often contain polypropylene, a thermoplastic polymer that lasts for a long time and releases toxins into the land and atmosphere. Face masks that end up in oceans release plastic particles that become a part of the food chain. In some areas, especially rural ones, people might throw the face masks in mountainous regions and forests, thinking that they have gotten rid of the waste. But the waste will only damage the environment in the region and pose a risk to wildlife.
Recycling systems around the world are apparently breaking down due to strained budgets as a result of the pandemic. Of the 9,000 recycling facilities in the U.S, most have their operations tied to the budget of local municipalities. Since these municipalities are redirecting a big portion of their funds on managing the pandemic and its effects, many have suspended recycling activities. As a result, the millions of face masks we use will have no place to go but under land or in the seas, causing major issues in the future. French politician Eric Pauget calls face masks an “ecological time bomb” given their toxic effects and lifespan of 450 years.
Safeguard against air pollution?
Outside of COVID-19, most people have been using face masks to block out pollution. However, this only gives a false sense of security. Most masks are made from materials like cotton or something similar that are arranged in three or more layers. These masks are good at capturing droplets of water that might contain viruses or bacteria.
Such droplets are usually 100 micrometers in size, roughly equivalent to dust specks or pollen grains. However, when we talk about pollution, we have to consider toxic gases like ozone, nitrogen dioxide, volatile organics, and so on. Face masks are completely helpless when it comes to blocking these gases, even the masks made of top-quality fabrics.