Are face masks a threat to oceans?

In the ongoing COVID 19 pandemic, some face masks used to control the spread of the virus as personal protective equipment (PPE) have become an emerging threat to water, aquatic life and the environment.

Most face masks contain plastics or other by-products of plastics materials. As such, increased usage of face masks, especially single-use ones, will eventually increase plastic pollution, which threatens marine and aquatic environments.

Most plastic particles are photo-oxidized when exposed to ultraviolet (UV) radiation, causing them to become brittle and fragment into microplastics. While heat, sunlight, and well-aerated conditions are ideal to produce microplastics via iterative fragmentation processes, the cold and anoxic conditions of aquatic environments and sediments can cause very slow degradation of plastic particles, which can last over centuries.

Conservationists have warned that the pandemic has contributed to a surge in ocean pollution, adding onto the existing plastic waste crisis. Aside from the formation of microplastics, wrongly disposed face masks can also have a direct effect on wildlife through direct and indirect ingestion – causing respiratory and gastrointestinal obstructions or death by starvation. If not properly cut, the string of face masks can also cause entanglements (see picture on the left – photo credit: Mary Caporal Prior).

Moreover, micro and nanoplastics from face masks not only harm wildlife but also pollute our water courses. Researchers have found that disposable masks could also be releasing dangerous pollutants, including heavy metals and toxic dyes.

These emerging challenges in solid waste management are being taken into account in novel academic studies as well as in environmental policies trying to find ways to contain the threat. It is necessary to plan and consider various options, such as specific separation, storage and collection strategies for recycling and appropriately disposing of face masks and medical waste in order to reduce plastic waste. Additionally, it is crucial to adopt alternative technologies to obtain more environmentally friendly PPE. In this scenario, a sustainable approach can focus on promoting the use of natural plant fibres in the production of face masks to obtain a biodegradable and compostable product.

Our fight against waste and the commitment to the reduce, reuse, recycle mantra contributes to reducing the over-exploitation of raw materials, which is more needed than ever. Governments are employing numerous international agreements to regulate on plastic pollution. Furthermore, upcycling face mask waste and producing construction materials from it (e.g. artificial aggregates, light weight plastic blocks and ecological mortar) can be another viable solution in the near future to repurpose plastic waste and reduce environmental and health impacts.

To encourage and promote the use of natural plant fibre face masks and to reduce the risk of the pandemic spreading to the environment from hospitals and communities, it is crucial to develop standardisation procedures and to strictly implement medical waste management guidelines. We urge governments and international organisations to prioritise funding for research & development of eco-friendly PPE, to implement clear quality standards for their fabrication and to design guidelines to manage hazardous waste like facemasks not just in medical settings but also in communities. Let’s solve this growing health and waste crisis together, with action today.


What can YOU do?

  • Consider buying a reusable mask or a mask made of natural fibre.
  • Dispose your mask properly.
  • Cut the strings to prevent entanglement for wildlife

Manikanda Bharath

Researcher at Anna University, India