At least once, the Covid-19 outbreak made everyone ask themselves: “Where did I put my face mask?”. There is who forgot it at home and who was just looking for it in the wrong pocket, there is who lost it somewhere without knowing and who threw it away in the closest trashcan or, in the worst case scenario, on the ground.
Face masks are hazardous for the environment in numerous ways when littered.
Face masks are made of plastics, which are not biodegradable and can persist in the environment up to hundreds of years as micro- and nanoplastics . Laying in an open-air environment, “alone in a strange world under the light of a new sun, in their new home” (Nolan, 2014) – which may be a cornfield, a roadside, a riverbank, a bird’s nest, a beach, etc. – littered face masks lie at the mercy of abiotic and biotic factors, and slowly release chemicals into the surrounding areas .
As it is true for all other plastic materials, face masks can be mistakenly eaten by farm animals and wildlife, thus ending in their stomach and often in our meal. In other cases, face masks obstruct the airways and the poor animal chokes to death . Furthermore, they are subject to weathering and after a short time, they start to crumble, releasing plastic fibres as well as heavy metal traces, such as lead, antimony, and cadmium, into the soil and nearby water courses .
This might seem a problem confined to the source of pollution, but considering the amount of littered face masks, it is in fact a widespread tragedy.
Before the beginning of the pandemic, plastic pollution was a well-known problem, clearly imprinted in our brains. The world was becoming more sensitive about the climate crisis and environmental breakdown and using (and throwing away) a plastic face mask every day was not even conceivable. However, now, after more than one year coping with the pandemic, the world uses and disposes about 3.4 billion single-use face masks every day . They will not be gone for a very, very long time.
Since face masks are still compulsory in Europe and most parts of the world, it is unrealistic to think that this new source of pollution will be erased in a short time. Finding solution to reduce the number of littered face mask is imperative.
“So, what can I do about it?”
The National Geographic recommended three main points to fight against face masks pollution :
- Do not be a litterbug
- Wear washable cloth masks, when possible
- Pack used PPE (i.e., “Personal Protective Equipment”) into a plastic bag, seal it, and put it out for the trash
And I would like to add one extra point:
- Talk about face masks pollution. Try to sensitize your friends and family and raise awareness.
Masks must be used. It is a matter of public health. But also the ocean and land health must be protected.
Face mask pollution and wrong disposal seems a minor problem now that the virus is still infecting and killing thousands of human beings, but it will slowly and steadily grow over time . If we neglect it now, we will have to face a much larger face mask pollution crisis in the future.