“It is critical that we work to reduce our use of single-use plastics, and we all have a role to play.”
More than 1.56 billion masks have entered the oceans in 2020, according to a new report.
The study reporting such an alarming figure has been released by Hong-Kong-based marine conservation organization OceansAsia entitled “Masks on the Beach: The Impact of COVID-19 on Marine Plastic Pollution.”
For the study, the team tracked the number of face masks washing up on a remote island south of Hong Kong since the pandemic started.
“About six weeks after COVID hit Hong Kong, so late February, we began finding masks, and lots of masks,” Dr. Teale Phelps Bondaroff, director of research for OceansAsia said.
To arrive at the estimate, the report used a global production estimate of 52 billion masks being manufactured in 2020, a conservative loss rate of 3 percent, and the average weight of 3 to 4 grams for a single-use polypropylene surgical face mask.
According to the report’s findings, an estimated 1.56 billion face masks could have flooded the oceans in 2020, which means an additional 4,680 to 6,240 metric tonnes of marine plastic pollution.
The report states that these single use face masks are made from a variety of meltblown plastics including polypropylene, which are difficult to recycle due to both composition and risk of contamination and infection.
This plastic then goes on to break down into microplastics, which further pollutes and harms the marine ecosystem and its wildlife.
“The 1.56 billion face masks that have entered our oceans in 2020 are there for the long run. They will remain in the ocean for 450 years or more, and they’ll break into smaller pieces,” Bondaroff said.
‘We all have a role to play’
To tackle the menace, the report urges people to wear reusable masks as much as possible, dispose of masks correctly and cut down their overall consumption of single-use plastic. It also calls on governments to:
- Implement policies designed to encourage the use of reusable masks, such as releasing guidelines regarding the proper manufacture and use of reusable masks.
- Foster innovation and the development of sustainable alternatives to single-use plastic masks.
- Discourage littering by increasing fines, and educate the public about responsible ways to dispose of masks.
- Repair and improve waste management systems to reduce losses and spillage.
“It is critical that we work to reduce our use of single-use plastics, and we all have a role to play,” Bondaroff said.
“There are reusable and sustainable options for almost every single single-use plastic item. Please wear a reusable mask, unless absolutely necessary, and be sure to dispose of all masks responsibly.”
Increased plastic pollution
Despite the huge influx of face masks, the report pointed out that this was just a small fraction of the estimated 8 to 12 million metric tonnes of plastic entering our oceans each year.
Commenting on the situation, Gary Stokes, Director of Operations of OceansAsia said: “Hygiene concerns and greater reliance on take-away food has led to increased use of plastics, particularly plastic packaging.
“Meanwhile, a number of measures designed to reduce plastic consumption, like single-use plastic bag bans, have been delayed, paused, or rolled back.”
‘Devastating our oceans’
He added that “Marine plastic pollution is devastating our oceans.
“Plastic pollution kills an estimated 100,000 marine mammals and turtles, over a million seabirds, and even greater numbers of fish, invertebrates and other animals each year.
“It also negatively impacts fisheries and the tourism industry, and costs the global economy an estimated $13 billion USD per year.”
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