As the pandemic continues to claim lives, the stress on mask-wearing and social distancing is growing exponentially and with this exponential growth of surgical mask production and usage, we are staring at a bigger cataclysm.
The pandemic isn’t just taking human lives, it’s affecting the environment adversely, as mask pollution became the new reality.
According to experts, more than 1.56 billion face masks have entered the rivers and oceans which has increased the danger of plastic pollution for marine life. This huge quantity of masks will take more than 450 years to decompose as they are made of non-biodegradable substances like polypropylene. Microplastics from these masks will slowly enter the system of marine creatures, inherently hampering their life cycle and survival. So, in 450 years this 4680-6240 metric tons of mask will destroy the deepest parts of the ocean.
Speaking on the ongoing crisis, Teale Phelps Bondaroff, the Director of Research of the Hong Kong-based marine conservation organization OceanAsia said that the 6240 metric tons of faces are only the tip of the iceberg “just a small fraction of the estimated 8 to 12 million metric tonnes of plastic that enter our oceans each year”
Bondaroff who authored the report “Masks on the Beach: The Impact of COVID-19 on Marine Plastic Pollution” highlighting this estimate, says that the matter is worse than we can perceive. About 52 billion masks have been manufactured this year in order to counter the pandemic.
The Double-Edged Sword: Decomposing Masks
Decomposing these masks is a double-edged sword as researchers have to deal with complex synthetic plastic composition and the risk of infection and contamination. The report suggests that the masks can be decomposed by applying “a loss rate of 3% to reliable mask consumption numbers to yield the overall number of face masks that enter the environment”.
Multiplying this number by three to four grams approximates the weight of these masks, says the report.
Pandemic Impact on Plastic Waste
According to the estimate, 8-13 million tons of waste will be added to our yearly ocean waste this year because of the discarded masks and by the end of 2090 the global plastic waste in the ocean will triple
The report also highlights how illegal plastic waste disposal has increased due to the lockdown and the effect of more indulgence in takeaway food which has added more packaging waste in the last 10 months. The rate of recycling has decreased by 5% while plastic waste disposal has increased by 280%
Speaking on the matter, the Director of Operations of Oceans Asia, Gary Stokes said, “reliance on takeaway food increased plastic usage in food packaging while a plastic usage reducing measures like single-use plastic bans have been delayed or rolled back.”
Plastics in Our Food
Already, these huge pools of plastic waste are releasing microplastics into the ocean which is entering the food chain through marine creatures. Many of these marine animals like fishes are consumed by humans who are unknowingly getting back the plastic pollution.
Stokes highlighted the extent of this by putting up the statistics that “100,000 marine mammals and turtles, over a million seabirds, and even greater numbers of fish, invertebrates and other animals are killed each year because of plastic pollution”.
Plastics Affecting Economy
Not just that, it negatively impacts Fisheries and tourism prospects with an estimated economic toll of $13 billion per year.
Curtail This With Responsible Mask Usage
Despite all this, there’s still time to curtail this if not completely revert this by using resumable biodegradable masks and disposing them responsibly.
“Responsible use of masks could prevent them from entering the ocean”, suggest the report.