Dr. Teale Phelps Bondaroff
As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the production and use of personal protective equipment (PPE), such as masks and gloves, has skyrocketed. While PPE offers important protection from the virus, its improper disposal has led to a surge in plastic pollution.
In late February 2020, about six weeks after Covid-19 had reached Hong Kong, OceansAsia team members visited a remote beach on the Soko Islands, south of Lantau. Along 100 meters of beach they found 70 single-use plastic face masks. On every subsequent visit to a beach, our teams have found dozens of masks.
After breaking this story, we set about to determine how many face masks were likely entering our oceans. From a global production projection of 52 billion masks for 2020, and assuming a conservative 3% loss rate, we estimate that at least 1.56 billion masks entered our oceans in 2020. This amounted to between 4,680 and 6,240 metric tonnes of plastic pollution.
Unfortunately, face masks are just a small part of marine plastic pollution, and they constitute a fraction of the more than 8 million metric tons of plastic that enters our oceans each year. This plastic does not go away, but rather accumulates, breaking up into smaller and smaller pieces. The typical surgical mask, for example, is made from melt blown polypropylene and could take as long as 450 years to break up in the marine environment, all the while serving as a source of micro plastic and having a negative impact on marine wildlife and ecosystems.
Plastic pollution has impacts on wildlife and ecosystems in a number of ways. Larger pieces of plastic can entangle wildlife, leading to limb amputation, suffocation, and death, as well as scour and destroy corals. Smaller pieces of plastic are easily ingested, and can bioaccumulate in animals and bio magnify in predators. Plastic adsorbs toxins, so that when ingested it can poison animals, sometimes killing them outright, and in other instances weakening them so that they are more susceptible to disease and predation. It is estimated that annually marine plastic pollution kills 100,000 marine mammals and turtles, over a million seabirds, and even greater numbers of fish, invertebrates and other marine life. Plastic pollution also has profound impacts on coastal communities, fisheries, and economies.
Unfortunately, not only has the consumption of single-use plastic PPE increased dramatically during the pandemic, but so too has the consumption of plastic in general. Concerns about hygiene and a greater reliance on take-away and home-delivered food have led to increased plastic waste production. At the same time, a number of measures designed to reduce plastic consumption, such as single-use plastic bag bans, have been delayed, paused, or rolled back. Increased waste production has overwhelmed many waste management systems, leading to the loss of more plastic into the environment. PPE also presents challenges to waste management systems as it is very difficult to recycle, particularly because it is often made from multiple materials, and due to safety concerns.
Our oceans are filling with plastic and we must act now. Action is needed at every possibly level to address the serious threat posed by marine plastic pollution.
When possible, individuals should choose to wear reusable masks and masks made from sustainable materials. Masks should always be disposed of responsibly. In general, we should all strive to reduce our consumption of unnecessary single-use plastic, purchase from companies that offer these alternatives, and encourage other companies to reduce their use of plastic.
Governments have a central role to play in efforts to reduce single-use plastic. There are a wide range of policy instruments that can be implemented, which include measures designed to change consumer behaviour, bans on unnecessary products, market-based instruments, legislation designed to hold producers accountable, and incentive and support programs. With respect to masks, governments should implement policies designed to encourage the use of reusable masks. The release of guidelines regarding the proper manufacture and use of cloth masks is a good starting point. Other policies should include such measures as educating the public about, and removing barriers to, safe mask disposal, coupled with effective fines for littering. Governments should also support innovation and the development of reusable and sustainable alternatives to single-use plastics and accelerating efforts to reduce their use.
Dr. Teale Phelps Bondaroff is the Director of Research for OceansAsia, a marine conservation organization based in Hong Kong. You can learn more about the organization at www.oceansasia.org and about Dr. Phelps Bondaroff and his research at www.teale.ca.