Face Mask Litter Up 9,000%, Causing Environmental Disaster, Says Experts
According to the study “Increased personal protective equipment litter as a result of COVID measures,” where researchers took data from 11 countries - Canada, France, Germany, Belgium, Spain, the U.K., the U.S., the Netherlands, Sweden, Australia and New Zealand - face mask litter increased 9,000 per cent between March to October 2020.
“We found that littered masks had an exponential increase from March 2020, resulting in an 84-fold increase by October 2020,” lead researcher Keiron Roberts said in a release. “There is a clear need to ensure that requiring the use of these items is accompanied with education campaigns to limit their release into the environment.”
Like most other countries, Canada’s data showed an emergence of mask, glove and wipe litter around and after the announcement of the pandemic.
Between June to October 2020, after the WHO recommended the use of masks, the study noted a dramatic increase in mask litter as people began leaving their homes due to relaxed lockdowns.
“In April 2020, it was beginning to appear that there were some small positives in the decrease in human activity caused by lockdown, with improvements in air quality and water quality. Reduced human activity also saw reports of animals coming back to towns and cities,” Roberts said in the release.
“At the same time, reports of masks and gloves appearing on beaches and streets, where they hadn’t been before, started to emerge. As COVID-19 spread, so did the news reports of this new type of litter,” he continued.
“It wasn’t a surprise to see mask litter appear, but what did surprise us was how national legislation had dramatically impacted the occurrence of mask litter,” Roberts said.
As countries legislating mask use increased, their appearance in litter also increased, the study found.
Professor at the University of Portsmouth Steve Fletcher said in the release “despite millions of people being told to use face masks, little guidance was given on how to dispose of them or recycle them safely. Without better disposal practices, an environmental disaster is looming.”
Many of the masks, made from plastic materials, can stay in the environment for “decades to hundreds of years.”
Such litter can get "entangled and choke large animals, and if eaten can cause internal complications and even death. Wherever litter lands can smother smaller organisms and plant life."
“As nations use masks to support social interactions, they need to support the safe disposal of this litter, and while they are at it, all other litter too,” Roberts said in the release. “We need to avoid this pandemic litter becoming a lasting legacy.”