Disposable masks are plastic products that cannot be readily biodegraded.
Gulf Today Report
The vital role that face masks have played in stalling the spread of coronavirus cannot be stressed enough.
However, their noticeable benefits may come with an unnoticed rider — environmental damage.
Ever since the globe was swept by the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a huge demand for disposable face masks.
This has resulted in enormous production of disposable masks, but it is now feared that undisposed of properly, they pose a major threat to the natural world.
Recent studies estimate around the world humans are now using a whopping 129 billion face masks every month.
Taking 31 days in a month that is an average usage of 2.8 million masks a minute being used across the planet.
Researchers now warn the huge volume of mask, with their plastic composition, pose a growing environmental threat and are urging action to prevent it from becoming the next plastic problem.
Environmental toxicologist Elvis Genbo Xu from the University of Southern Denmark and professor Zhiyong Jason Ren, an expert in civil and environmental engineering at Princeton University, said: “Disposable masks are plastic products that cannot be readily biodegraded but may fragment into smaller plastic particles, namely micro- and nanoplastics that widespread in ecosystems.
“The enormous production of disposable masks is on a similar scale as plastic bottles, which is estimated to be 43 billion per month.”
But they said unlike plastic bottles, of which approximately 25 per cent are recycled, there is no official guidance on mask recycling, making them more likely to be disposed of in inappropriate ways, the researchers said.
If not disposed of for recycling, like other plastic waste, disposable masks can end up in the environment, freshwater systems, and oceans, where weathering can generate a large number of micro-sized particles (smaller than 5mm) in a matter of weeks and further fragment into nanoplastics (smaller than 1 micrometer).
Last summer marine biologists warned that improper disposal of pandemic-related waste meant there could soon be “more masks than jellyfish” in the Mediterranean Sea.
The researchers stressed they do not know exactly how masks contribute to the large number of plastic particles detected in the environment — simply because no data on mask degradation in nature exists.
“But we know that, like other plastic debris, disposable masks may also accumulate and release harmful chemical and biological substances, such as bisphenol A, heavy metals, as well as pathogenic micro-organisms,” said Dr Genbo Xu.
“These may pose indirect adverse impacts on plants, animals and humans.”
The researchers have urged authorities to set up mask-only trash cans for collection and disposal, and said other means of reducing the impact of the masks could be by more people using reusable cotton masks, developing biodegradable disposable masks, and implementing systematic waste management for disposing masks.
The research was published in the journal “Frontiers of Environmental Science & Engineering.”
Around 129 billion disposable masks are used every month around the world, according to the American Chemical Society.
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