During the first few years of the pandemic, we questioned the dangers of mask waste as disposable mask use ramped up to incredible levels. However, while research was being done then, it wasn’t until late last year that we got a detailed look into how harmful mask waste was and continues to be for the environment.
An article from the Natural History Museum in late 2022 highlights how much damage disposable face masks have done to the environment. Worryingly, these impacts will continue affecting us for tens if not hundreds of years.
The best example of how widespread mask waste has become is how accustomed we have become to seeing blue surgical masks strewn across roads, beaches, and forests. Where before seeing a disposable mask would have caused pause, we now treat them as we do cigarette butts or plastic bottles - not worth a second glance.
This prevalence of mask waste has caused masks to contribute to as much as 1% of all dumped litter globally and 5% in the UK. While these numbers may sound small, it’s important to note that masks have a significant environmental impact as they can entangle birds and other small wildlife. Furthermore, disposable masks and respirators break down relatively quickly into micro and nano plastics.
Studies have found that 83% of pandemic waste incidents involved birds. Following birds, 11% of sightings involved mammals, 3.5% invertebrates and 2% fish. Overall, entanglement accounts for about 42% of the impact of pandemic waste on wildlife.
While these sightings show the current impacts of mask waste on the environment, we now have to deal with the long-term impacts. Masks are estimated to take 450 years to decompose, and the long-term impacts of the vast amounts of mask waste from the pandemic are unknown.
Whatever the findings, these studies show the need for reusable and washable masks. For respiratory diseases and air pollution, masks and respirators are our best line of defence, so we must use reusable masks to cut down on waste.