While COVID-19 has changed our lives beyond measure, it has also had a huge impact on our oceans. Single-use plastics have been a problem already, but now their use has exploded into Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) like face masks and gloves being used and discarded on a huge scale worldwide.
Researchers have been investigating how much PPE is being incorrectly disposed off and ending up as oceanic pollution. OceansAsia estimated that in 2020, 1.56 billion face masks ended up in the ocean. WWF-UK suggests that if even 1% of disposable masks were not recycled correctly, this could result in 10 million masks polluting our environment. While there isn’t a consensus on the exact figure, scientists agree there is definitely a huge problem.
With routine mask-wearing looking like a standard practice for months to come, finding a solution to this problem is critical to the health of our oceans.
Oceanic wildlife at risk
Single use masks aren’t usually recycled due to the risk of contamination and their composition, but if they’re discarded incorrectly they can cause a serious problem for oceanic wildlife. The filtration layer within face masks is usually made from polypropylene, which can take between 400 to 500 years to breakdown.
Masks and gloves can be ingested by wildlife, affecting their health and often ultimately leading to death. The algae that coats plastic pollution can encourage sea turtles to eat it. The ear loops of masks can also get tangled in sea bird's legs.
There’s a variety of solutions being investigated to try and reduce the number of PPE items ending up as oceanic pollution.
Use a reusable face mask
Making discerning decisions when it comes to the type of face mask you use can make a huge difference. Medical-grade masks are essential for frontline healthcare workers, but for the general public, a switch to reusable masks is recommended.
Dr. Jennifer Cole, research fellow (AMR) at the University of London in the UK, said:
“Human health is dependent on the health of the environment, and COVID-19 must not become a reason to further degrade that health. Single-use, disposable masks and plastic gloves must be avoided. Cloth face masks must be made more widely available and plastic gloves are completely unnecessary."
Switch to a biodegradable disposable mask
Reusable face masks aren’t always suitable, especially for those working in high-risk environments like hospitals. The Hong-Kong based face mask brand Maskology is now working with the non-profit organisation A Plastic Ocean Foundation to develop biodegradable face masks.
Make sure to dispose of PPE correctly in your rubbish bin at home, and cut the ear straps first.
Adjusting to the New Normal
While there have been plenty of challenges for us to overcome during the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s still vitally important to remember the impact that improperly discarded PPE can have on the health of our oceans. Plastic-laden masks and gloves that pollute our oceans can endanger wildlife.
Experts recommend that it’s completely safe for the majority of mask users to switch to a reusable and washable face mask. This one step can drastically reduce the huge numbers of disposable masks being thrown away. By making small changes to the way we use and dispose of PPE, we can make a big difference to the health of our oceans. And with the health of the human race being inextricably linked to the health of our environment, this is something we must act upon.