A study by researchers at the University of Southern Denmark and Princeton University has suggested that we use 129 billion face masks globally every month, with the majority being single use or disposable – which equates to 3 million being used then discarded every minute.
Last year Planetary published an article on how PPE is polluting our oceans, and these shocking statistics suggest little has changed in how the world is combatting PPE waste whilst continuing to deal with the Covid crisis. The greater concern is the lack of guidelines and instruction surrounding the disposal of such items.
In the scientific journal Frontiers of Environmental Science & Engineering, the researchers, Environmental Toxicologist Elvis Genbo Xu and Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering Zhiyong Jason Ren, warn: “With increasing reports on inappropriate disposal of masks, it is urgent to recognize this potential environmental threat and prevent it from becoming the next plastic problem.”
Disposable masks are made from material that cannot biodegrade, but frequently break down into smaller particles, known as ‘microplastics’, that seep into every ecosysterm. Microplastics have even been found more recently in the placentas of unborn babies!
Elvis Genbo Xu and Zhiyong Jason Ren have the following suggestions for dealing with the problem:
- Set up mask-only trash cans for collection and disposal
- consider the introduction of standard guidelines, and strict implementation of waste management
- replace disposable masks with reusable face masks like cotton masks more widely
- consider the development of biodegradable disposal masks.