Three Million Face Masks Are Thought To Be Thrown Away Every Minute
Three million face masks are thought to be thrown away every minute, research suggests.
In June 2020, researchers at the University of Aveiro in Portugal estimated that 129 billion face masks are used monthly across the world.
Experts at the University of Denmark have described the worrying statistic, which amounts to three million face masks a minute, as a ‘ticking time bomb’.
In the paper, titled Preventing masks from becoming the next plastic problem, scientists said the world must ‘urgently recognise this potential environmental threat’.
One key factor which could be contributing to the problem is that face coverings are a new phenomenon in most countries across the world. While we are quite used to recycling items such as plastic bottles, there is no official guidance on mask recycling. Researchers said this makes it more likely that they would be disposed of as solid waste.
Like other items, plastic fibres in face masks cannot be readily biodegraded, but fragment into smaller plastic particles that widespread in ecosystems.
‘Polypropylene is one of the most commonly produced plastics and the high usage has led to a large waste accumulation in the environment,’ the study said.
Researchers said that masks were not being properly collected and managed, leading to masks ending up in freshwater environments, such as rivers and oceans.
At the end of 2020, a report published by OceansAsia found that more than 1.5 million face masks had entered the world’s oceans in the last year.
Scientists said this added between 4,680 to 6,240 metric tonnes of marine plastic to pollution figures. As per the findings, face masks can take up to 450 years to break down.
Gary Stokes, the director of operations, said at the time that marine plastic pollution is having a devastating impact on oceans, and killing 100,000 marine mammals and turtles every year.
Authors of the latest report, Elvis Genbo Xu, an environmental toxicologist at the University of Southern Denmark, and Zhiyong Jason Ren, an environmental engineering professor at Princeton University, laid out some suggestions of how society can lessen the problem.
These include designated rubbish bins designed for face masks so they can be easily collected and disposed of as well as a general cultural shift towards reusable face masks.
Pointing to expert warnings that coronavirus will likely become endemic, the researchers also suggest the development of biodegradable disposable masks.
‘It is imperative to launch coordinated efforts from environmental scientists, medical agencies, and solid waste managing organisations, and the general public to minimise the negative impacts of disposal mask, and eventually prevent it from becoming another too-big-to handle problem,’ the study said.
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CreditsFrontiers of Environmental Science & Engineering
Frontiers of Environmental Science & Engineering