Surgical masks such as these have become a common sight on streets around the world.
Following in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic were growing fears and numerous accounts of discarded single use PPE making its way into the world’s oceans. Yet despite these very real concerns there is no extensive quantitative estimation of the amount of discarded face masks likely to litter coastal regions. Chowdhury, Chowdhury and Sait have risen to this challenge in their latest paper – using datasets for people’s behaviour and linking them to data sets for solid waste management. They estimate that between 0.15 million tons and 0.39 million tons of face masks will enter our oceans in this year alone – with lower solid waste management facilities increasing the amount.
N95 masks, surgical masks and other similar disposable masks contain significant amounts of non-recyclable plastic. The plastics used include: polypropylene, polyurethane, polyacrylonitrile, polystyrene, polycarbonate, polyethylene and polyester. As such we can expect facemasks in the ocean environment to have a smothering effect on small benthic organisms, act as an ingestion hazard for larger fauna (choking when airways are blocked or starving if digestive tracts are blocked), act as an entanglement hazard for mid sized fauna due to the straps that secure masks to faces and become sources of microplastic fibres in the marine environment.
The authors of the paper note that “Significant investments are required from global communities in improving the waste management facilities for better disposal of masks and solid waste.” to which I would add that those of us who can use re-usable masks should do so and ensure we dispose of single use masks safely and responsibly.
The paper “Estimating marine plastic pollution from COVID-19 face masks in coastal regions” by Hemal Chowdhury, Tamal Chowdhury and Sadiq M.Sait, 24 April 2021 is published in Marine Pollution Bulletin available through the ELSEVIER.
by Andrew Pollard