How to stop discarded face masks from polluting the planet

April 22, 2021

By: Laura Parker

Personal protective equipment is made of plastic and isn’t recyclable. Now it’s being found everywhere on earth, including the oceans. The solution isn’t complicated: Throw them away.

Earth Day has revealed a new problem this year, according to National Geographic Magazine: discarded face masks are multiplying at an alarming rate, clogging landfills, choking wildlife and because of some of the materials used to construct them, face masks are likely to require many years before they decompose.

A year ago, the idea that disposable face masks, gloves, and wipes could become global environmental pollutants was not a pressing concern. Personal protective equipment, PPE for short, was seen as essential for preventing the spread of COVID-19. Those who warned about an environmental catastrophe were ignored. Then production exploded— and now the litter is inescapable

In the time since, scientists have collected data from more than 40 studies that document the use and disposal of PPE and model what that looks like on a global scale. Globally, 65 billion gloves are used every month. The tally for face masks is nearly twice that— 129 billion a month. That translates into 3 million face masks used per minute.

All PPE waste may be called disposable, because they’re cheap enough to be used once and then thrown away. But here’s the hitch: They don’t actually go away.

Disguised plastic

Face masks, gloves, and wipes are made from multiple plastic fibers, primarily polypropylene, which will remain in the environment for decades, possibly centuries, fragmenting into smaller and smaller micro plastics and Nano plastics. A single face mask can release as many as 173,000 microfibers per day into the seas, according to a study in Environmental Advances. A number of scientists have expressed alarm about the increased presence of plastic microfibers in waterways. Microfibers are easily absorbed by humans and other animals. Its effect on health is unknown.

Face masks, gloves, and wipes are not recyclable in most municipal systems and should not be added to any household recycling bin. Masks can contain a mix of paper and polymers, including polypropylene and polyester, that can’t be separated into pure streams of single materials for recycling. They are also so small they get caught in recycling machinery, causing breakdowns. (PPE used in medical facilities is disposed of as hazardous medical waste.)

A larger global problem gets worse

The problems created by PPE litter have arrived at a complicated time in the effort to curb plastic waste. Plastic recycling has seen a significant decrease since lockdowns began, according to Reuters News Service. In the US, orders are down, costs have increased and prices have fallen. The decrease in plastic recycling has occurred at the same time that the amount of plastic waste accumulating in the oceans is forecast to triple in the next 20 years, with no real solution on the horizon. If every corporate pledge to use more recycled plastics were kept, the shift would reduce that projected tripling by just 7 percent.

The pandemic has also seen increased production of disposable packaging, as consumers have bought more takeout food, and as bans of single-use plastics, including shopping bags, were suspended because of fears that reusables would spread the virus. At the same time, in part due to cuts in cash-strapped municipal budgets, a third of the recycling companies in the United States have been partially or completely shuttered.

What you can do

• Don’t be a litterbug— even with PPE.
• Wear washable cloth masks when possible.
• Pack used PPE into a plastic bag, seal it, and put it out for the trash.

What can be done?

Within days after the pandemic was declared last March, Justine Ammendolia, a marine researcher based in Toronto and a National Geographic Society grantee, noticed face masks and gloves in increasing numbers as she took her daily walks. She also noticed a lack of structured monitoring of PPE by any governmental or other organization as it spread throughout the city.

To identify hotspots, Ammendolia herself documented face masks, gloves, and wipes at six sites, including two grocery store parking lots, a hospital district, two residential areas, and a recreational trail. She logged 1,306 items over five weeks last summer. Not surprisingly, the grocery parking lots had the most, followed by the hospital district.

“It’s not the biggest amount of plastic in the world,” she says, “But, the thing is, we’re going to be changed after this event, as is our relationship with decomposability. This raises attention to the amount of waste being produced. That is the starting point of the conversation.”

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