More Sea Creatures to Wear Discarded COVID Masks for the Next 500 Years

Discarded COVID mask in water on a beach.

Discarded face masks are definitely spreading from man into the oceans and are becoming a hazard to many sea creatures. (Image: Ronstik via Dreamstime)

Images of sea creatures wearing discarded COVID masks touch the heart. 

According to a general understanding, COVID masks are supposed to be credible protection against the COVID-19 virus. For example, preventing drops of saliva from spreading from one person to another.

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But what many don’t know is that while the virus may (or may not) be prevented from spreading from human to human through these face masks — discarded COVID masks are spreading from man into the oceans and are becoming a hazard to many sea creatures that have never heard about COVID-19.

“The growing mountain of waste from disposable face masks threatens to poison our water and disrupt entire marine food chains,” according to Business Insider

How many discarded COVID masks end up in the sea?

Waste from discarded COVID masks creates a massive heap of plastic waste that finds its way into the ocean every year.

According to independent sources, roughly 1.6 billion disposable face masks ended up floating on the surface of the world’s oceans in 2020.

According to researchers from Visual Capitalist, some 3 percent of the 52 billion disposable COVID-19 face masks produced have found their way into the oceans

How long will it take for discarded COVID masks in the sea to disintegrate?

According to a recent report released by Oceans Asia, discarded COVID masks will create an extra 4,680 to 6,240 metric tons of marine plastic pollution. 

“The 1.56 billion face masks that will likely enter our oceans in 2020 are just the tip of the iceberg,” says Teale Phelps Bondaroff, director of research for Oceans Asia, and lead author of the report, in a quote from South China Morning Post.

Entitled Masks on the Beach: The Impact of Covid-19 on Marine Plastic Pollution, the report indicates that discarded COVID masks will take up to 450 years to break down and harm marine wildlife and ecosystems.

According to a recent report released by Oceans Asia, discarded COVID masks will create an extra 4,680 to 6,240 metric tons of marine plastic pollution.
According to a recent report released by Oceans Asia, discarded COVID masks will create an extra 4,680 to 6,240 metric tons of marine plastic pollution. (Image: via Pixabay)

More masks than jellyfish

The French non-profit Operation Mer Propre sounded the alarm in May 2020 during their usual activities that included regularly picking up litter along the Côte d’Azur. 

Divers had found what a leading member of the organization, Joffrey Peltier, calls “Covid waste.”

This consists of discarded COVID masks, bottles of hand sanitizer, and dozens of gloves all beneath the waves of the Mediterranean. These were mixed with the usual litter of aluminum cans and disposable cups.

France, alone, has ordered 2 billion disposable masks, according to Laurent Lombard of Opération Mer Propre.

He concluded that soon, the country might risk having more discarded COVID masks than jellyfish in the Mediterranean. He posted on social media next to a dive video where one sees discarded COVID masks entangled with algae and disposable gloves in the sea near Antibes.

What is disposable mask archaeology?

There is a typical scene on many sidewalks: Just 2 feet from the trash can lies a three-ply blue surgical face mask. 

While it has been created for apparent protection, it was also designed to be disposable — which suggests that its place is inside the trash can after use.

In Miami, Florida, the borders between land and ocean are fluid. During the hurricane season, the scattered discarded COVID masks will be mixed up with the rest of the ocean debris that accumulates in the planet’s oceans and eventually is washed up on distant shores, where they may entangle birds’ legs. 

The masks contain a specific plastic — the filters are woven from polypropylene, which may cause anxiety in those aware of the decomposition cycle of these masks.

Discarded COVID masks, bottles of hand sanitizer, and dozens of gloves were found beneath the waves of the Mediterranean.
Discarded COVID masks, bottles of hand sanitizer, and dozens of gloves were found beneath the waves of the Mediterranean. (Image: Seadam via Dreamstime)

Any archaeologist will tell you that plastics are very un-similar to any material used by humans historically.

Humans have made adornments and tools from natural materials like wood, bone, stone, and clay, or metal in the past millennia.

If faith so wishes and the circumstances are right, some artifacts made of natural materials will be preserved. But most biodegrade and safely convert back to the Earth. 

Unfortunately, the best-case scenario for plastic materials made by humans nowadays is that these synthetic polymers invented for industrial mass production will make their way to the landfill.

This scenario holds a worrying side effect. Archaeological investigations of current landfills have shown decomposition slows down dramatically in such a setting.

This means masks will remain buried and take up space for centuries to come. One may assume that it’s a relief once the face masks decompose. Unfortunately, that scenario is even more frightening than the first. 

When the polymer plastic woven into the face masks decomposes, it breaks down into smaller pieces. Kind of like a cookie crumbles. So these little pieces, known as microplastic, become an almost eternal hazardous alien presence in the environment. 

Plastic waste floating on the sea surface — an area known as the photic zone — decomposes faster than elsewhere. Little pieces of plastic waste end up in the mouths of sea creatures that assume it was food. 

Scientists have discovered microplastic fibers in the stomachs of a crustacean from nearly 7,000 meters deep in the Mariana Trench. The species has been coined Eurystheus plasticus.

What may seem humorous at first giving a new species a name associated with the plastic found in its digestive system may become detrimental to humans who eat the marine life that lives closer to the surface of the ocean. 

The impact of COVID-19 on sea life and the environment 

“Tons of COVID-19 Healthcare Waste exposes the urgent need to improve waste management systems,” says the WHO on its website

According to a WHO report, the “tens of thousands of tons of extra medical waste” caused by COVID-19 interventions are causing a threat to human and environmental health.

The UN justifies this with the statement that the UN and countries were so occupied with assuring supplies of PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) that they paid less attention and dedicated fewer resources to managing COVID-19-related waste.

It is unclear how long we will continue to produce this type of medical waste and create this potential environmental catastrophe.

We know that it takes discarded COVID masks roughly 500 years to disintegrate. But even then, it will be passed on to humans from the livestock and food they consume. 

The most impactful thing “everyone” can do to make a difference is to be more mindful of waste management.

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