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Disposable Masks Adding to World’s Plastic Problem

Study finds masks break into micro plastics that can pollute waterways

March 23, 2021

Plastic bottles and grocery bags have long been the culprits of increased plastic waste around the world. The coronavirus pandemic has brought about a third culprit—disposable face masks, Fox News reports. Although the masks are made of plastic microfibers, there have been little to no guidelines on how to recycle them.

In a study published in the journal Frontiers of Environmental Science & Engineering, researchers from the University of Southern Denmark and Princeton University in Princeton, New Jersey found that the masks cannot be readily biodegraded and may fragment into smaller plastic particles, namely micro-and nano plastics, that can become widespread in ecosystems. With people worldwide using nearly 130 billion disposable face masks each month, scientists warned that the masks will be contributing to the ongoing plastic problem unless recycling measures are taken.

Production of disposable masks is at a similar scale as plastic bottles. While 25% of plastic bottles are currently being recycled, face masks are being disposed of as solid waste due to the lack of recycling guidelines. When not properly collected, masks can be transported from land into freshwater and marine environments by surface run-off, river flows, ocean currents, wind, and animals that become entangled in the masks or ingest them.

Researchers offered the following suggestions to lessen disposable masks’ effects on the environment: 

  • 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.

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