Sustainability is Gone

Face masks problem

Face masks are now mandatory in many public spaces around the world. But even before they became obligatory, masks were causing litter problems on land and at sea. Despite millions of people being told to use face masks every day, little guidance has been given on how to dispose of or recycle them safely. As countries begin to lift lockdown restrictions, billions of masks will be consumed. According to the University of Southern Denmark, studies estimate that we use an astounding 129 billion face masks globally every month which means almost 3 million per minute! Most of them are disposable face masks that are made from plastic microfibers. About 85% of people around the world use face masks that cannot be reused or recycled and without better disposal practices, an environmental disaster is looming ahead. This makes it a big problem for our planet.

Why aren’t face masks recyclable?

Most masks are manufactured from long-lasting plastic materials, and if posed can persist in the environment for decades. Disposable face coverings often contain silicon-based and plastic fibres and this type of material is common in all plastic disposable face masks. Also, we know that, like other plastic debris, disposable masks may also accumulate and release harmful chemical and biological substances, such as bisphenol A, heavy metals, as well as pathogenic microorganisms. “These may pose indirect adverse impacts on plants, animals and humans,” says Elvis Genbo Xu, Dr Genbo Xu (Elvis), an Assistant Professor in the Department of Biology, University of Southern Denmark. This means they can have several impacts on the environment and people as explained below.

1- Impacts on animals

Disposable masks contain plastics that pollute water and can harm wildlife but also animals that may eat them or become tangled in them. Over the medium to long term, animals and plants are also affected. Through its large numbers, plastic waste can smother environments and break up ecosystems. Some animals aren’t able to tell the difference between plastic items and their prey, meaning that they could choke on pieces of litter. Even if they do not choke, animals can become malnourished as the materials fill up their stomachs with no nutritional value. Smaller animals could become entangled in the elastic within the masks or gloves as they begin to break apart. Plastics break down into finer pieces over time, and the longer litter is in the environment, the more it will decompose. Plastics first break down into microplastics and eventually into nanoplastics. These tiny particles and fibres are often long-lived polymers that can accumulate in food chains. Scientists predicted,

“Using an annual global production estimate of 52 billion masks, we calculate that 1.56 billion masks will enter our oceans in 2020, amounting to between 4,680 and 6,240 tonnes of plastic pollution.”

2- Impacts on Plants

Disposal masks, as previously mentioned, are made of plastic materials and this type of plastic, when disposed of, stays for millions of years. Over time it breaks down into known microplastics and these break down further into nanoparticles. The problem is that plastic is then entering OUR food chain. This affects our only source of oxygen on earth plants. When plants are affected, the planet suffers because people’s life depends on plants, first for food, second to be able to breathe, and without our 2 sources of life humans will all die. So, plastic masks that people are required to wear every day could potentially lead to severe health problems for everyone. By using plastic face masks we are defending ourselves but we are in return polluting our planet.

Studies show how the problem is expanding

A recent study shows that about 80% of people wear masks every day while about 16% of people wear a mask from time to time. This indicates that about 96% of people from around the world understand the importance of wearing a mask during the pandemic. However, people don’t know the consequences of using those masks, this appears as another problem to our planet.
Another online survey was made, which indicates that the highest percentage of 40% of people are using surgical masks for their safety. Whilst, the cloth mask is the second-highest for use (34%) as it’s cheaper than other masks and also can be reused. Keeping the least used mask at last and it is the N95 mask.

3-  What should we do?

First of all, people who are using face masks to secure themselves from Covid 19 have to use cotton masks instead of plastic masks which gives them the ability to reuse their face masks again and again. Some countries had other solutions which they have implemented. For example, French company Geochanvre has created a mask made mostly from hemp (Hemp fabric is breathable and moisture-wicking, it adjusts to the temperature of your body (or in this case, face) and will keep you fresh and dry). In Australia researchers at the Queensland University of Technology are currently experimenting with products of waste plant material, such as sugar cane bagasse and other agricultural waste, which has been developed. The original aim was to develop biodegradable masks. It is thought that it could be used for COVID-19 protection as the highly breathable nanocellulose material removes particles smaller than 100 nanometres, the size of viruses. Organic, biodegradable masks are also being suggested, with cotton, linen, bamboo, silk and hemp face coverings all currently being marketed widely. Other more inventive materials, with additional properties, are also being explored. Finally, Elvis Genbo Xu and Zhiyong Jason Ren have the following suggestions for dealing with the problem:

  1. Set up mask-only trash cans for collection and disposal
  2. consider standardization, guidelines, and strict implementation of waste management for mask wastes
  3. replace disposable masks with reusable face masks like cotton masks
  4. consider the development of biodegradable disposal masks.

In conclusion, mask waste has been a new problem since our planet is infected with Covid-19. For plenty of reasons that we have mentioned earlier masks on top of everything cannot be recycled. To sum up, reusing, and reducing mask usage could be the best solution, also wearing masks made from organic and biodegradable materials could provide a great solution.

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