A recent report by James Ashworth for the Natural History Museum has highlighted the environmental damage caused by face masks - showing why reusable and semi-reusable masks are essential. The article discusses how although mask-wearing has gradually decreased as the pandemic drags on, the waste caused already could lead to a wildlife risk for tens if not hundreds of years.
While the study's co-author, Alex Bond, admits that we don’t know exactly how big of a problem pandemic waste is, the study can provide some insight as to the extent of pandemic waste. Considering over 129 billion masks were being produced per month at the height of the pandemic, the impacts of mask waste in our ecosystems are sure to cause damage.
Before the pandemic, masks and respirators were a niche good - worn by a very small portion of the population and occupational users such as doctors. However, with the pandemic making masks an essential protection item, the number of abandoned face masks rose more than 80 times. This led to masks accounting for 1% of global litter and as high as 5% in the UK.
Face masks weren’t alone in contributing to COVID-19 waste, however. Disposable gloves also contributed greatly, accounting for as high as 2.4% of global litter earlier in the pandemic. Both these forms of PPE have led to issues with wildlife - particularly masks, which can easily tangle wildlife, especially birds.
The study looked at incidents involving animals affected by mask waste. The vast majority of these sightings involve birds as they can easily become entangled in the earloops and headbands of masks. Mammals followed, with around 11% of incident sightings featuring the animals. Finally, 3.5% of sightings involved invertebrates and 2% involved fish.
It’s important to note that this article only looks at the visible impacts of mask waste. Although we don’t know the extent of the impact, we know the microplastics from masks are bound to cause harm once they reach our waterways and break down. With face masks taking an estimated 450 years to break down, there are bound to be more impacts discovered soon.
This report shows the importance of moving away from single-use masks. We need to use reusable masks where possible to reduce our waste. Want to learn more? Check out the full article here.