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How disposal face mask is affecting the environment

COVID-19 pandemic continues spreading after six months. With as many as 300,000 cases recorded in 188 countries, the United Nations’ World Health Organization has recently declared the fast-spreading COVID-19 outbreak as a pandemic. Citizens around the globe are hastening to take every possible measure to safeguard their health against the virus. The most widespread of these precautions is the extensive use of surgical face masks. Despite millions of people being told to use face masks, little guidance has been given on how to dispose of or recycle them safely. And as countries begin to lift lockdown restrictions, billions of masks will be needed each month globally. Without better disposal practices, an environmental disaster is looming.

The World Health Organization estimated that 89 million additional disposable masks were needed globally per month in medical settings to combat COVID-19 in March. Take Hong Kong as an example, during a recent survey trip to Soko Islands, a small cluster of islands lying south-west of Lantau Island, Hong Kong-based environmental NGO OceansAsia found heaps of discarded single-use masks washed up on a 100-metre stretch of beach.

The majority of masks are manufactured from long-lasting plastic materials, and if discarded can persist in the environment for decades to hundreds of years. This means they can have a number of impacts on the environment and people. Initially, discarded masks may risk spreading coronavirus to waste collectors, litter pickers or members of the public who first come across the litter. We know that in certain conditions, the virus can survive on a plastic surgical mask for seven days.

Animals and plants are also affected in the long term. Animals probably may mistake this trash for food, which could lead to entanglement, choking, ingestion and death. Even if they do not choke, animals can become malnourished as the materials fill up their stomachs but provide no nutrients. Smaller animals may also become entangled in the elastic within the masks or within gloves as they begin to break apart.

As we cannot stop wearing masks at this moment, we need to choose the right masks. The University College London team examined the manufacture, use and disposal of masks that were disposable, reusable, and reusable with disposable filters, to calculate their overall environmental impact. They found machine washing reusable masks with no filters had the lowest impact over a year. Indeed, disposable filters increase the environmental impact because the small filters are often made from plastic similar to the disposable masks, with a filter discarded after every use. Surprisingly, it is estimated that hand washing reusable masks with disposable filters had the highest environmental impact overall, even higher than using fully disposable masks.

Here are some steps that can reduce the impact of wearing a face mask. First, use reusable masks without disposable filters. Second, try to carry a spare one and if something goes wrong with the one you’re wearing you don’t need to use or buy a disposable mask. Third, don’t put disposable masks in the recycling as they can get caught in specialist recycling equipment and be a potential biohazard to waste workers. Last but not least, don’t litter them!

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