In the era of COVID-19, we all have to take extra precautions to protect ourselves from the coronavirus. This includes social distancing, proper sanitization of surfaces and necessary use of personal protective equipment (PPE) such as masks and gloves. Plastic pollution was a problem long before this pandemic, but the increase in medical waste compounds it. Most masks are made from durable plastic materials, and they can remain in the environment from a few decades up to hundreds of years. Even an uninfected mask is a source of microplastic, which subsequently enters the human body due to improper disposal.
The pandemic has meant orders for disposable masks and PPE has skyrocketed. An estimated 129 billion face masks and 65 billion gloves are used and disposed of globally, each month as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. Global sales of disposable face masks alone are set to skyrocket from an estimated USD 800 million in 2019 to USD 166 billion in 2020, according to business consulting firm Grand View Research.
Our streets, beaches and ocean have been hit by a tidal wave of COVID-19 waste including plastic face masks, gloves, hand sanitizer bottles and food packaging. Hundreds of masks have already been spotted scattered across beaches and floating in oceans, posing a threat to aquatic animals who mistake them for food. More than 1.5 billion disposable face masks will wind up in the world’s oceans this year — polluting the water with tons of plastic and endangering marine wildlife, according to a Hong Kong-based environmental group
But face masks needn’t be added to this list of concerns. With all of this in mind, we should take these steps to reduce the impact of wearing a face mask:
1. Use reusable masks without disposable filters. Machine wash them regularly following the instructions for the fabric.
2. Try to carry a spare so if something goes wrong with the one you’re wearing you don’t need to use or buy a disposable mask.
3. If you do need to use a disposable mask, take it home and then put it straight into a bin with a lid. If this isn’t possible, place it in a proper public bin.
4. Don’t put disposable masks in the recycling. They can get caught in specialist recycling equipment and be a potential biohazard to waste workers.
5. Whatever you do, don’t litter them!
In the longer term, governments and manufacturers must make every effort to design masks that will not harm the planet – and consumers should demand this. Face masks will probably be ubiquitous on our streets for months to come. But once the pandemic is over, the environmental legacy may last for decades, if not centuries.