A Pollution Pandemic: The Environmental Damage of Disposable Masks

We all remember when there was a shortage of face masks, when we had to make our own reusable masks to allow for healthcare workers to have access to disposable/surgical ones, but now more than a year later the shortage is no longer there. Instead, we have pollution. 2-3 years ago no one would think “pandemic pollution” would ever occur, but it did. In August of 2021, 8.4 million tons of pandemic-related plastic waste was created. 

Each year, plastic pollution kills about 100,000 marine mammals/turtles/fish/seabirds and the list goes on. Specifically to masks, birds and fish are getting tangled up in the straps, and marine life is eating them. Tos.org stated, “If even only 1% of the masks were discarded incorrectly, that would result in 10 million masks per month dispersed in various ecosystems.” Masks and pollution justifiably go hand in hand. The straps alone cause a huge hazard for all wildlife. 

Researchers say that when a mask enters any body of water, toxins begin to release from the mask. Once a mask enters the environment, it begins to break down due to chemical, mechanical, and biological actions. The mask is broken down into micrometric and submicrometer particles. Promptly, making it easier for any type of animal to ingest it. Once an animal ingests a piece of this plastic, it is prone to entanglement and suffocation. Not only that, but a small piece of micrometric plastic can expose an entire organism (including humans) to toxic potentials such as bisphenol A (BPA). A study in Swansea University even found that some of these toxins may be cancer causing. Some would even say that masks cause a bigger threat to the environment than plastic bags. 

According to oceansasia.org, “masks will take as long as 450 years to break down, slowly turning into micro plastics while negatively impacting marine wildlife and ecosystems.” The disposal of single-use masks is a bit more complicated than the disposal of your used paper towel. Masks are not recyclable. Recycling can only occur when something is made of a single material so that it is able to be sorted in a “like to like” program. Instead, masks are made up of metal, cotton, elastic, etc. 

Granted, there’s no “best solution” to mask pollution, but there are ways that are effective in some way, shape, or form. For most individuals the best way to dispose of a mask properly is to just cut the straps and place it in a garbage can, preferably with a lid. Then, the mask is transported to a landfill with very low chances of ending up in our environment as a solid. In the Hinsdale area, there is a landfill just off the Tri-State Tollway. This landfill is home to all the garbage produced by homeowners in Hinsdale, Clarendon Hills, and many more surrounding towns. 

This might seem like the most practical solution, and for many it is, but it’s not the “best” solution. Landfills produce a tremendous amount of air pollution. Landfill toxins are able to move freely through our windows, all the way to our ventilation systems. 

Humans have the power to change the amount of pollution we have in the air and on land. The United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) states that if no action against plastic pollution is made, the amount of plastic in the ocean will triple by 2040. The world will go from 11 million tons to 29 millions tons of plastic. Not only do we have the power to make the situation worse, we also have the power to make the situation better. 80% of plastic pollution can be stopped if we all make small changes to our current disposal and/or recycling methods. We’ve all heard the words “Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle” and at this point many of you are probably sick of hearing it, but truth be told that’s the way to stop most plastic pollution. 

There are hundreds of nonprofits such as “Clean This Beach Up” or “Terracycle” working to hopefully decrease the amount of pandemic pollution created. Clean This Beach Up focuses on removing as much plastic as possible from some of the most popular beaches. Now more than ever, volunteers at Clean This Beach Up are collected anywhere from 50-100 masks at each cleanup. 

Terracycle has the main goal of completely eliminating waste. They have created a sustainable box that collects anything that wouldn’t be able to be recycled properly (such as disposable masks) and properly disposes of them. Terracycle converts anything that was sent to them in their zero waste box into reusable metals or plastic pellets to ensure they are being properly recycled. 

Pandemic pollution is real and it’s only getting worse. The chances of you seeing a mask on the side of the street is consistently getting higher. 129 billion masks are being used each month. Out of that 129 billion, 3 million are being thrown at every minute. Each mask we dispose of properly means 1 less mask to end up in the ocean, or in a landfill polluting our air. 

Next time you find yourself with a bunch of used masks, think twice about the way you plan on disposing of them. Maybe instead of throwing them in the closest garbage can you can, research about where you can find the closest Terracycle box. Or, if not, snap the straps and simply throw it away. It’s all up to us to make a change. Every mask counts. 

Written by Emily Malorny

Sources:

https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2021/03/210310122431.htm

https://brill.com/view/journals/ab/71/2/article-p215_7.xml?language=en

https://www.pbs.org/newshour/show/pandemic-pollution-disposable-masks-gloves-are-saving-lives-but-ruining-the-environment

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0304389421014722

https://www.news10.com/news/toxins-found-in-disposable-face-masks-may-harm-humans-and-the-environment/

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