The outbreak of coronavirus has created havoc around the entire world. Every individual is trying their best to protect themselves from contracting the virus. From social distancing to face masking, people are adapting every possible measure to cope with the wrath of COVID-19. Likewise, the face mask is one of the key precautions used to prevent the spreading of the disease. It has become our “new normal”; but it still remains peculiar to our environment. For now, it may slip from our mind to consider the harms from these masks, yet a little attention to it can make a huge difference. In not, the environmental impact resulting from these face masks may last longer than viruses.
There are various types of face masks available in the market with different levels of protection. Among various kinds, surgical masks are the most used mask. As soon as the lockdown ended worldwide, the demand for the face mask increased in greater numbers. The UN trade body, UNCTAD, estimates there will be a total sale of around $166 billion of these face masks this year, which was around $800 million in 2019. The greater production will obviously result in greater disposal of these masks that hamper our environment in various aspects.
It is estimated that 126-194 billion masks are disposed of each month. This extensive use of masks has added an extra burden to our environment which was already facing the problems of excessive plastic pollution. The masks are made up of plastic polymers that provide them with water resistance and longevity. Unlike biodegradable objects, these masks further breakdown into tiny microplastics and nanoparticles. In fact, a single mask can break down into millions of particles, each of which has potential chemical toxicity. Once ingested by animals, the tiny plastics can lead to bioaccumulation and disturbance in the food chain.
How is it affecting the environment?
It is estimated that about 75 per cent of the face mask and other pandemic related wastage will remain in the landfills as well as in water resources. If the government is unable to manage the waste properly, it may result in uncontrolled dumping. Though people are asked to wear masks as a COVID-19 safety protocol, they are totally unaware of the ways of disposal. Thus, they perform toxic activities like open burning and haphazard throwing to get rid of the disposed masks, which in return can create environmental and health issues.
When an infected mask is thrown away randomly in the environment, the person working to collect those waste may get affected as the virus can survive in such a mask for 7 days under certain conditions. Another consequence seen so far is that the waste is mistaken by animals (terrestrial, aquatic or aerials) and as their food, leading to choking or even death. Even if not choked, these masks may satisfy their hunger without any nutritional value and cause malnutrition. Hence, in the long run, it will adversely affect the environment, disturb the food chain, and ruin the ecosystem.
What can we do then?
While the world is facing COVID-19 pandemic, masks are helping us to save lives. So, avoiding its use might not be a smart move. Instead, we can opt-out for better practices that can be beneficial to both humans as well as the environment.
We can use a reusable mask instead of a surgical one. If you are working in the frontline or going to a huge mass, you can use the most effective one (surgical or KN95) or else the reusable mask with proper sanitation and social distancing can work best. Moreover, we can reduce the purchase of masks by developing a habit of carrying a spare mask. When we need to throw the disposable mask, we should make sure to cut off the straps and throw it in the proper public bin but not in the recycle bin.
Although these measures are not enough to completely cease the current environmental changes, it can surely make a small difference. It is time that our environment and the other species sharing the home with us need a little more of our attention.
Writer: Shweta Parajuli is currently pursuing a Bachelor’s degree in Forestry in 3rd year.