Experts recommend the way to properly eliminate single-use face masks, and explain why they’re having harmful effects on the environment.
Face mask pollution and therefore the environments
Throughout the past year, face masks became one among the foremost prominent symbols of the coronavirus pandemic, both on our faces and, consistent with experts, in pollution scattered across the planet’s beaches, streets and bodies of water. OceansAsia, a nonprofit marine conservation advocacy organization, recently conducted research about what percentage single-use face masks are likely to possess entered the world’s oceans in 2020. Overall, the organization estimates that quite 1.5 billion face masks entered oceans in 2020, leading to a further 4,680 to 6,240 metric tons (about 5,160 to 6,880 U.S. tons) of marine plastic pollution.
When single-use masks aren't disposed of properly, they pose an environmental risk, said Teale Phelps Bondaroff, director of research for OceansAsia. Single-use face masks — both the disposable kind the overall public wears and medical-grade surgical masks — are often made with polypropylene plastic. When that plastic breaks up into smaller pieces, it can take as long as 450 years to decompose, Phelps Bondaroff said. And while reusable cloth face masks are an eco-friendlier option, disposable masks are both a suitable face covering, consistent with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and CDC-recommended for double masking.
It’s crucial to find out the way to properly discard face masks so as to make sure they don’t find yourself in oceans, lakes and rivers, said Erin Simon, head of plastic waste and business at World Wildlife Fund. The goal isn't to vary the disposable mask space because it may be a key a part of medical safety protocols, Simon highlighted, noting environmental experts more specifically advocate for the right management of disposable face masks after they’re used.
“The challenge is that now the overall public is using them and not removing them correctly,” Simon said. “In this case, the acceptable choice is that the trash or landfill.”
As plastic — which partially comprises disposable face masks — degrades, it releases into the water hundreds to many micro plastics, pieces of plastic that are but 5 millimeters long, consistent with NOAA. Benfield, who developed a methodological survey with colleagues to gather data about PPE litter round the world, said micro plastics are especially dangerous because they’re sufficiently small to undergo filters and find yourself in our beverage, or get absorbed into the bodies of animals that humans eat, like fish. Marine animals can become tangled in disposable face masks or mistake them for food, Benfield added. Both situations.
We talked to experts about how mask pollution is harming the environment within the wake of the pandemic, and what we will do to assist. We also rounded up an inventory of eco-friendly reusable face masks.
Why disposable face masks can’t be easily recycled
Simon said traditional local recycling programs tend to only sort “like with like,” meaning they group items that are made up of the precise same materials — like one sort of plastic, glass or paper — then recycle those items together. A disposable mask, however, is formed from different materials that can't be easily separated. Phelps Bondaroff said single-use face masks usually contains metal for the nose piece, cotton and elastic for the ear loops and melt-blown polypropylene for the most structure that covers the mouth and nose.
According to recycling company TerraCycle and experts we’ve consulted, single-use personal protective equipment like masks and gloves often don’t get recycled through local programs in towns and cities due to the associated cost. However, Phelps Bondaroff noted that companies like TerraCycle have begun to plan strategies and specified programs for recycling disposable face masks. TerraCycle offers a PPE recycling program through which you'll collect items like disposable face masks and gloves during a box that’s available to get through the corporate (TerraCycle doesn't accept reusable face masks or PPE from healthcare facilities). When the box is full, you'll send it back to TerraCycle, which then sorts materials and sends them to third-party processing partners that recycle them into usable forms. for instance, Terracycle states that “The polypropylene-dominant mixture from the mask is densified into a crumb-like staple that’s utilized in plastic lumber and composite decking applications.”
How to mitigate the impacts of mask pollution
Phelps Bondaroff said the simplest thanks to mitigate the impacts of (and help prevent) mask pollution is removing them correctly and ensuring they are doing not enter the Earth’s ecosystem. He said it’s important to throw away face masks in garbage cans that have a lid and a garbage bag which will be tied together when it’s removed to stay them from rupture or blowing away.
Phelps Bondaroff also mentioned he’s seen posts circulating on social media from environmental and activist organizations recommending we cut the straps of face masks’ ear loops before throwing them away. He said this might help prevent animals from getting tangled within the ear loops, and reduce the probabilities of them getting stuck on trees and plants. But WWF's Simon noted it’s more important to spend time finding a covered, lined trashcan.
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