More than 1.56 billion masks entered the oceans in 2020, according to a new report. The study presenting such an alarming figure has been published by the Hong Kong-based marine conservation organization OceansAsia, titled “Masks on the beach: the impact of covid-19 on marine plastic pollution”.
Tons of plastic pollution
To arrive at the result, the report used a global production estimate of 52 billion masks manufactured in 2020, a conservative 3% loss rate, and an average weight of 3-4 grams for a single-use polypropylene surgical mask.
According to the report’s findings, approximately 1.56 billion face masks could have flooded the oceans in 2020, meaning an additional 4,680 to 6,240 metric tons of marine plastic pollution. The report states that these single-use face masks are made from a variety of meltblown plastics, including polypropylene, which is difficult to recycle due to both composition and the risk of contamination and infection.
This plastic then breaks down into microplastics, further polluting and damaging the marine ecosystem and its wildlife. “The 1.56 billion face masks that entered our oceans in 2020 are there for the long haul. They will stay in the ocean for 450 years or more and break into smaller pieces,” Bondaroff said.
“It is critical that we work to reduce our use of single-use plastics, and we all have a role to play,” Bondaroff said. “There are reusable and sustainable options for almost all single-use plastic items. Wear a reusable mask, unless absolutely necessary, and be sure to dispose of all masks responsibly.”
100,000 marine animals die from plastic pollution
Despite the large influx of face masks, the report noted that this was only a small fraction of the 8 to 12 million metric tons of plastic that enter our oceans each year. Commenting on the situation, Gary Stokes, COO of OceansAsia, said: “Hygiene concerns and increased reliance on takeout have forced increased use of plastics, particularly plastic packaging.”
“Meanwhile, a number of measures aimed at reducing the consumption of these materials, such as a ban on single-use plastic bags, have been delayed, paused or reversed.” He added that “marine plastic pollution is devastating our oceans.”
“Plastic pollution kills an estimated 100,000 marine mammals and turtles each year, more than a million seabirds, and an even larger number of fish, invertebrates, and other animals. It also has a negative impact on the fishing and tourism industry, and costs the world economy an estimated $13 billion per year,” concludes the environmentalist.
Plastic in disguise
Masks, gloves, and wipes are made from various plastic fibres, primarily polypropylene, that linger in the environment for decades, perhaps centuries, breaking down into smaller and smaller microplastics and nanoplastics. According to a study published in Environmental Advances, a single mask can release up to 173,000 microfibers into the sea every day.
The masks and gloves thrown to the ground are carried by the wind into the rivers and streams, which carry them to the sea. Scientists have documented their presence on South American beaches, at river mouths in Jakarta Bay, on the Kenyan coast, and on Hong Kong’s uninhabited Soko Islands. Discarded PPE has clogged drains from New York to Nairobi and clogged machinery in the municipal sewer system in Vancouver, British Columbia.
These objects are affecting the animals. In the Netherlands, the Innocent Coot, a white-faced bird about 30 centimetres tall, has been observed building nests with face masks, assuming its large, lanky feet do not get caught in the decorative strips. This has happened, sometimes with deadly consequences, to swans, gulls, peregrine falcons and songbirds, according to a study published in Animal Biology.
Microplastic generated from face masks
The largest number of masks has been estimated for China (3.99.925 million), which is the most populous nation in the world (1.4 billion). The total annual generation of plastic waste in China is estimated to be more than 0.1 million.
India is the second-most populous nation in the world with a population of over 1.39 billion and estimated use of over 2 lac masks. It is estimated that the total annual plastic waste to be generated in India is 0.1 million with a microplastic/polypropylene content of 1,541 thousand tons.
The US is the third-largest consumer of masks (1,22,727 million) with an annual plastic waste of ∼25,000 tons and a microplastic content of 792 thousand tons.
According to the study, researchers have analyzed the microplastic waste that is generated due to face masks in 36 countries around the world. Their findings have shown that in these countries of the world where the highest number of Covid-19 cases have been reported, about 154.6 lakh tons of face masks are used every year, the total number of which is about Rs 151 540 crore. Due to this, about 97.7 lakh tons of microplastics are being produced.
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