In a three-month period, Taiwan produced 1100 garbage trucks of disposable plastic face masks (one garbage truck fits 5 tons of litter). The world needs 89 million masks a month – can you image how many thousands of trucks they would fill? While the world is focusing on taming the rapidly spreading coronavirus, pollution due to the pandemic is creating dangerous environmental issues that must be taken seriously. Single-use face masks are causing concerning plastic waste because they contribute to littering, are not recycled adequately, and an eco-friendlier alternative is not promoted.
Single-use face masks contribute to littering and therefore cause harm to the wildlife and humans. Masks can be seen laying on sidewalks, blown out of trash bins into the grasslands, or swimming in bodies of water. Animals can misidentify masks as food, choke on or get poisoned by them, and get tangled in the strings attached to the mask. That is why single-use masks must be thrown in bins with a lid with their strings cut off. Coronavirus can survive on a plastic mask for up to 7 days and unsafe disposal (especially littering) can contribute to someone getting infected. This shows that unsafe riddance of single-use masks does not only contribute to pollution but also can add to the rise of the infected. Also, it takes a very long time for plastic to fully disintegrate and disappear from the environment – around 450 years. During the decomposition process, it breaks down into microplastics (tiny particles of any plastic that are less than 5 mm in length) that make their way into our food chain. With current pollution, the amount of microplastic humans consume each 6 months is equivalent to a bowl of breakfast cereal – around 125 grams. Assuming that more and more plastic will pollute the environment (including masks and other medical waste produced during the pandemic), an average human being might consume more than 20 kilograms of microplastic in their lifetime – two mobile recycling bins. By reducing littering of disposable masks, plastic waste’s effect on human health and the wildlife could be reduced.
To prevent plastic pollution, a public way of recycling disposable masks must be implemented. As mentioned before, plastic masks are serious health hazards and possible infection carriers. It is advised not to put masks in recycling bins for plastic because they can cause waste workers to get sick. Just like medical waste from care facilities, it would be best to incinerate used masks after they have been properly segregated. Incineration is a process of burning used medical waste, while segregation is a method of separating waste into special bins according to its properties (toxicity, sharpness, etc.). Unfortunately, burning most of medical litter produced during the pandemic could have another effect – immense air pollution. The best solution that has already been implemented by several countries is recycling of plastic masks in facilities adapted only for this purpose. Special bins are placed around a city, people throw their used masks in them, and later they are collected for recycling. A French company Plaxtil has implemented such practice in 2019 and has already recycled over 50000 masks by turning them into a plastic-like material that can be used to make a variety of items. A company in US named TerraCycle offers to place more localized PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) bins – in personal households, workplaces, or neighborhoods. These examples prove that such projects could be implemented in other countries and reduction of plastic pollution would highly improve. A public way of disposing used masks for recycling is one of the most efficient solutions for reducing waste caused by the pandemic.
Multiuse face masks that are a great solution for plastic waste reduction are not endorsed enough. There are many rumors that cloth masks cannot protect humans the same way as plastic ones do. It is not entirely true and according to recent research “multilayer cloth masks, designed to fit around the face and made of water-resistant fabric with a high number of threads and finer weave, may provide reasonable protection”. They are not advised to be used by healthcare workers who spent much more time around infected patients, but for regular civilians they are a great way to be protected and contribute to plastic waste reduction. According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, for a cloth mask to be effective, it has to be made from densely woven cotton or linen and carefully washed and dried after each use. During various mask and protective gear testing, it was found that the droplet count from a properly made cloth mask is almost the same as the one produced through surgical and N95 single-use plastic masks. It is best to search for professionally made multiuse masks to be protected as best as possible and wash them in a washing machine, not by hand, to prevent excessive water consumption. By encouraging people to wear well-made cloth masks, plastic pollution due to the pandemic could be decreased.
Pollution nowadays is spiraling out of control and sadly not enough is done to save the world from an environmental disaster. A worldwide pandemic is going to have a lasting effect on our lives and upcoming generations, and hopefully several important lessons will be learned; one of them – plastic waste is killing the planet. To reduce current plastic pollution, single-use face masks must be disposed correctly to avoid littering, recycled as much as possible, and multiuse alternative must be endorsed. Responsible plastic disposal lays in each of our hands and it does not take much to save us from a plastic catastrophe.