Plastic pollution pandemic: Seeking solutions for mask-trash dilemma

As the fight continues worldwide against COVID-19, more and more face masks and protective equipment are ending up as waste. Is there a way we can prevent the next plastic problem?

With Earth Day celebrated last Thursday, there has been a lot of talk and thought on the damage the pandemic may reap on our planet in the future. Plastic pollution was already a major problem for our wildlife, oceans and overall ecosystem and with the unprecedented increase to that load due to the necessity of masks for safety, it is vital that we now realize how the waste caused may affect our planet so we can seek solutions for a sustainable future.

Going into our second year of contending with the COVID-19 pandemic, as we know very too well, masks and personal protective equipment (PPE) have unfortunately become a way of life as a safety necessity. I like to say, “masks are the new must-have accessory” as they are literally legally mandated by many countries, including here in Turkey. However, the world over we have yet to establish a safe, practical and environmentally sound way of discarding single-use masks.

It is estimated that 129 billion face masks (some point to that figure being as high as 194 billion) and 65 billion gloves are being used worldwide every month and that every minute 3 million single-use masks are being thrown out. If the data is a reliable indicator, then we can expect that around 75% of used masks and other disposable COVID-19-related protective gear will eventually end up in either landfills or the world’s oceans and seas. A recent study released by Oceans Asia estimates that in 2020 alone, 1.5 billion disposable masks ended up in the world’s oceans, which calculates to upwards of 6,500 tons of additional plastic waste. While PPE such as disposable masks and gloves have been deemed vital for health care workers for their safety during the COVID-19 pandemic, the ramifications if solutions are not reached will inevitably result in a major medical waste recycling crisis.

The reasons for this are multifold as masks are made up of multiple types of plastic, which makes it challenging to recycle unlike, for example, plastic water bottles. In addition, they can be a cause for contamination and are thus considered to be medical waste and must be handled accordingly. But in this case, we are handling these products and their disposal in our own homes and not in a hospital setting. However, the bottom line is that no matter what we do, we have to make sure that these masks are making it into a proper trash can and not being littered where they can make their way into let’s say sewers, where they could end up in our oceans and seas.

The ramifications of not properly disposing of masks could be detrimental to our natural environment and especially to wildlife. The majority of disposable PPE contains polypropylene plastic, which not only breaks up into smaller pieces creating microplastics but also can take up to 450 years to decompose. Furthermore, a study by Environmental Advances showed that in a simulated marine environment, a face mask was able to release 173,000 microfibers per day. These small elements can easily enter natural ecosystems causing havoc by negatively affecting water and air quality, killing wildlife and even entering into our own lungs and bloodstream. Microfibers can even enter the cells of marine life, which many humans enjoy eating. In addition to this, the ear straps on masks can also be death traps for animals, and especially marine life, which can get entangled in them.

A recent study endorsed by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) forecasts that if no action is taken, the amount of plastics dumped into the ocean will triple by the year 2040, rising from 11 million to 29 million tons each year. However, that same study, entitled “Breaking the Plastic Wave” also states that if effective measures are put into place, the amount of plastic discarded each year can be significantly decreased. The study suggests a series of actions, including legislative measures, changing business models and introducing incentives to reduce plastic production and ensuring the recycling and safe disposal of plastic produced.

What are some solutions?

Turkey was early to tackle the issue of safely discarding single-use masks with a memorandum sent out to all places of businesses requiring separate waste disposing vessels in all public areas and entrance and exits or buildings. The waste is supposed to be handled separately from other trash and kept in a storage facility for 72-hours to mitigate the chance of contamination.

In England, a recent initiative has started by the Wilko chain of stores, which will provide drop-off bins for people to safely discard their disposable masks. Meanwhile, a new imitative was launched in the U.K. on Earth Day last Thursday by Waterhaul, which specializes in recycling plastic waste and fishing nets from the ocean and transforming them into functional products. Their newest endeavor involves repurposing disposable masks into litter pickers (you know, those long stick-like gadgets with clippers at the end of it that are used to pick up trash) in what will inevitably be a true win-win situation, especially when used to pick up littered masks.

What can we personally do today for tomorrow?
  1. Reusable or biodegradable masks

The less plastic used equals the less plastic discarded. Thus, the number one guideline to preventing plastic pollution is simply not using it if possible. Obviously, when it comes to PPE this is not always an option, however, when possible it is strongly advised to use reusable masks made from biodegradable materials. Even in a double-masking setting, when you choose to use one mask that is reusable and one that is single-use, you are still lessening your own mask waste by half, which is certainly better than nothing. In Turkey, companies such as Tissum Health and expat-run Çöp Madam offer reusable masks for sale online. If there were single masks made from biodegradable materials, this would also be a more environmentally sound option to what we are currently forced to opt for.

2. Throw masks in the trash

Unfortunately as mentioned, due to the plastics used in producing single-use masks coupled with the threat of contamination, recycling disposable masks is not currently an easily accessible option. Thus, masks must be treated as medical waste and this medical waste needs to be properly thrown in the trash. If they are not, they can easily get blown by the wind into our roads and sewers, which is literally the worst thing that could happen in the world. The best place for this plastic at present is in a regular trash can and unfortunately, eventually in landfills, that is until we can come up with a more sustainable solution. Meanwhile, make sure to have a mask lanyard, or holder as it were, which you can wear around your neck to ensure your mask does not fall off or fly away and end up on the ground somewhere.

3. Cut off the strings

In addition to the plastic pollution wreaking havoc on our environment and harming our wildlife, discarding masks with the ear straps still intact can be detrimental for animals and marine life, who can get trapped in them. Thus, it is of utmost importance that if we do nothing else for the other living creatures inhabiting our planet it is that we make sure to cut off the straps of our masks before properly disposing of them.

4. A note on takeaway plastic

While the unprecedented increased use of masks is a problem, the fact that as a planet we are ordering more takeout and delivered food than ever before means that the amount of plastic containers and utensils that are being discarded has also increased exponentially. Luckily, these items are more easily recycled, we just need to ensure we do so, or better yet, let the restaurants you order from know that you don’t need utensils when meals are being delivered to your home. Better yet, seek out restaurants that offer more sustainable options such as paper or glass packaging. The bottom line is we need to be more conscious than ever of our use of disposable products as the planet is not equipped to handle the lifestyle we have become accustomed to. Instead, let us revisit the saying “waste not, want not” and make it our new mantra.

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