How masks pollute our environment

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A study shows that mouth masks pollute our environment. Three million masks are thrown away every minute.

Mouth masks protect us from infection with the coronavirus and are now part of our daily lives. Researchers at Southern Denmark have now found that 129 billion respirators are thrown away worldwide. That means three million masks end up in the trash every minute.

Most of these discarded masks are disposable and made of microfibers like plastic. Given this incredible amount of plastic waste, scientists are concerned about the impact all these masks will have on our planet.

“With increasing reports of improper disposal of masks, there is an urgent need to identify and prevent this potential environmental threat before it becomes the next plastic problem,” the researchers write in Frontiers of Environmental Science & Engineering.

How do masks harm the environment?

Disposable masks are not biodegradable, meaning smaller plastic particles (micro-and nanoplastics) remain and eventually spread through the ecosystem. Since the pandemic’s beginning, mass production of plastic face masks has reached a similar scale as the production of plastic water bottles. However, disposable water bottles include instructions on properly disposing of them – respirators do not.

According to researchers, if the masks are not disposed of properly, they will be in nearby oceans and waters. This can result in tons of microparticles (smaller than 5 mm) within a few weeks. These particles become more minor and challenging to detect and remove over time to make matters worse.

“A newer and bigger problem is that mouthguards are made directly from microscopic plastic fibers (one to ten microns thick). As they degrade in the environment, the mouthguards can release more microscopic plastics – more easily and quickly than bulk plastics such as plastic bags,” the study authors explain.

“Such effects may be exacerbated by new models of masks – nano mask – that directly feature nanosized plastic fibers (less than one micrometer in diameter) and provide a new source of neoplastic pollution.”

The extent of pollution uncertain

Due to a lack of data, researchers cannot determine how respirators pollute the environment. However, based on modern science’s understanding of other plastic waste, the team believes it is pretty safe to say that disposable masks likely accumulate and spread various harmful chemical and biological substances in the environment.

“We know disposable masks, like other plastic waste, can accumulate harmful substances such as bisphenol A, heavy metals, and disease-causing microorganisms. These can indirectly harm plants, animals, and humans,” concludes environmental toxicologist Elvis Genbo Xu in a university news release.

Here’s what you can do about pollution

The researchers have a few suggestions that could prevent pollution from the masks:

Every city and village should set up mask trash cans where only used respirators can be disposed of.

According to the experts, it would also help if many people switched from disposable masks to reusable models.

The development of a biodegradable face mask would also help protect the environment.

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