Will coronavirus face masks be the next 'plastic problem?' New research suggests yes

Nearly 130 billion face masks are used globally each month, studies suggest

Face masks used to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus as well as protecting yourself from the deadly disease have become an important tool in the past year that has been the COVID-19 pandemic. Though they’re necessary and useful, face masks — namely the disposable kind that are made of plastic microfibers — could be contributing to the world’s ongoing plastic problem, suggests new research. 

Nearly 130 billion face masks are used globally each month, translating to about 3 million a minute, according to recent studies. But with many of these masks being disposable and made of plastic microfibers, and few to no guidelines on mask recycling, "it is urgent to recognize this potential environmental threat and prevent it from becoming the next plastic problem," say researchers from the University of Southern Denmark and Princeton University, in a new study. 

In a study recently published in the journal Frontiers of Environmental Science & Engineering, researchers warned that disposable masks made with plastic microfibers "cannot be readily biodegraded but may fragment into smaller plastic particles, namely micro-and nano plastics that widespread in ecosystems."

The pandemic has ramped up the production of disposable masks, which the researchers say is now on a similar scale as plastic bottles, a major contributor to the world’s plastic problem with some 43 billion bottles produced worldwide each month. 

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However, there is a key difference between the two: unlike plastic bottles — about 25% of which is recycled — "there is no official guidance on mask recycle, making it more likely to be disposed of as solid waste," the researchers said in the study. 

"When not properly collected and managed, masks can be transported from land into freshwater and marine environments by surface run-off, river flows, oceanic currents, wind, and animals (via entanglement or ingestion). The occurrence of waste masks has been increasingly reported in different environments and social media have shared of wildlife tangled in elastic straps of masks," the researchers wrote in the study. "Like other plastic debris, disposable masks may accumulate and release harmful chemical and biological substances, such as bisphenol A, heavy metals, as well as pathogenic micro-organisms."

"Moreover," they wrote, "the uptake of small plastic particles is known to cause adverse health effects by three main possible means: particle toxicity, chemical toxicity, and pathogenic microorganism vectors." 

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The researchers continued by saying that disposable masks may even pose more of an issue than plastic bags. 

"A newer and bigger concern is that the masks are directly made from microsized plastic fibers (thickness of ~1 to 10 mm). When breaking down in the environment, the mask may release more micro-sized plastics, easier and faster than bulk plastics like plastic bags," they wrote, adding that such impacts "can be worsened by a new-generation mask, nanomasks, which directly use nano-sized plastic fibers (e.g., diameter < 1 mm) and add a new source of nanoplastic pollution."

"However, they noted, "no data on mask degradation in nature exists, so we simply do not know how masks contribute to the large number of plastic particles detected in the environment."

That said, the researchers pointed to concerns that the disposable masks, not unlike other plastic debris, could accumulate and release "harmful chemical and biological substances," such as bisphenol A, heavy metals, and other pathogenic micro-organisms. 

"These may pose indirect adverse impacts on plants, animals and humans," said Environmental Toxicologist Elvis Genbo Xu from the University of Southern Denmark and one of the study’s authors, in a statement.

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To protect the environment from the dangers of disposable face masks, the researchers offered the four following suggestions: 

  • Set up mask-only trash cans for collection and disposal
  • Consider standardization, guidelines, and strict implementation of waste management for mask wastes
  • Replace disposable masks with reusable face masks like cotton masks
  • Consider development of biodegradable disposal masks

"It is imperative to launch coordinated efforts from environmental scientists, medical agencies, and solid waste managing organizations, and the general public to minimize the negative impacts of disposal mask, and eventually prevent it from becoming another too-big-to handle problem," the study authors concluded.