Face Masks: Helping the Public, Harming the Oceans
Recent studies warn of a dramatic increase in marine pollution due to the overwhelming number of single-use face masks not being disposed of properly. This waste was added up to find the estimated pollution into oceans from face masks per year at the height of the pandemic: a total of 2.37 million tons from the 46 studied counties (Chowdhury et al., 2021). Face masks have already been found in many beaches, oceans, and freshwater systems around the world, further proving the need to create a better management plan for their disposal.
The Chowdhury study is not one of a kind, we are beginning to see reports from many trusted, peer-reviewed sources telling us the same thing. According to the World Wildlife Fund, if only 1% of face masks used around the world are not properly disposed of, we can expect to see an increase of 30,000-40,000 kg of waste per day (World Wildlife Fund, 2020). In a report by Oceans Asia in 2020, the average mask will take roughly 450 years to completely decompose- the same amount of time as a plastic water bottle.
The materials used in making N95 and surgical masks, the two most common face coverings for protection against COVID-19, break down into particles less than 5 mm under normal environmental conditions and contribute greatly to microplastic pollution (Zambrano-Monserrate et al., 2020). At this size, the smallest marine organisms can end up eating the plastic, pushing it up through the food chain into other species. Fish make up a large food source for people all over the world, and eating fish containing microplastics poses risks including, but not limited to, chromosome alteration, obesity, cancer, and infertility (Sharma and Chatterjee, 2017). If you’re not a fish person, that doesn’t mean you’re safe from microplastics: 81% of tap water around the world contains microplastic fibers, as well as 94% of all tap water in the US (PLOS ONE 2018). Beer, honey, sea salt, and anything that requires tap water can also be subject to these contaminants.
Face masks may play an essential role in preventing the spread of COVID-19, and while usage of face masks is slowing down with a decrease in cases as well as vaccinations to further protect us, it is still vital that we work together to protect the marine environment. At the individual level: try to find a reusable, effective face mask that works best for you. At the local and international government level: policies need to be implemented that will allow for safe disposal of face masks. The work to reduce single-use plastic in the past decade is being overwritten by the immense amount of pollution we are now seeing from single-use PPE amid this pandemic. This world is the only one we have; we need to work together to save it before it is too late.
Sharma, S., Chatterjee, S. (2017). Microplastic pollution, a threat to marine ecosystem and human health: a short review. Environ. Sci. Pollut. Res. 24, 21530–21547. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11356-017-9910-8.