The Face Mask Pollution and Ways to Minimize it

Captain Arif Mahmud

The illness due to COVID-19 altogether influences not just human wellbeing, it additionally influences the abundance of world economy and regular daily schedule of human existence. To control the spread of the infection, face mask is utilized as essential individual defensive or Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). Hence, the creation and utilization of face covers essentially during the period of COVID-19 pandemic is actually beneficial as per the opinion of the health professionals. Most of the disposable categories of face masks contain plastics or different subsidiaries of plastics. Accordingly, this broad use of face masks creates million tons of plastic waste.

A Hong Kong based environmental group ‘Ocean Asia’ in their report about “ The impact of COVID-19 on marine plastic pollution” has proclaimed that an estimated amount of 1.56 billion masks have entered the oceans in 2020, which amounts between 4,680 and 6,240 metric tons of plastic pollution. These masks will take as long as 450 years to break down and all the while serve as a source of micro plastic and negatively impact marine wildlife and ecosystems. ‘Ocean Asia’ also estimates that, from a global production of approximately 52 billion masks made in 2020, at least 3 per cent will enter the seas. The use of PPE, in particular face masks, and to a lesser extent gloves and face shields, has become widespread and a common tool used in preventing the spread of the pandemic. The value of the global face masks market was $0.79 billion in 2019, but expanded to an estimated $166 billion by the end of 2020 as per the estimation of ‘Ocean Asia’.

The pandemic triggered an estimated global use of 129 billion face masks according to estimates in a 2020 study published in Environmental Science and Technology, a peer-reviewed scientific journal by the American Chemical Society. Experts estimate that 30 percent more waste would be produced in 2020 and in 2021 compared to 2019. The study states that this increase is in part due to the “increased the use of PPE by the general public” during the pandemic, and thus getting thrown out as municipal solid waste, or everyday trash or garbage. Unfortunately, not everyone disposes of single-use face masks property. It is seen in offices, gardens and streets masks has been discarded and forgotten and, if the masks are thrown away in an outdoor garbage container without a lid, they can fall out or be blown away by the wind.

Types of Face Masks:

During this COVID-19 pandemic, as advised by WHO and doctors most of the people are using Face Masks. There are various types of face masks available in the market. Some of the masks are very expensive but normally the face masks are not very expensive and even the poor people are also using various types of face masks.  It would not be appropriate to discuss about the efficiency of masks rather I shall discuss about the environmental hazards that may arise from these masks.  Roughly the face masks are of three types and they are:

Disposable Type Surgical  Face Masks :

A surgical mask, also known as a medical face mask, is a personal protective equipment worn by health professionals during medical procedures. It prevents airborne transmission of infections between patients and/or treating personnel by blocking the transmission of pathogens (primarily bacteria and viruses) shed in respiratory droplets and aerosols into and from the wearer’s mouth and nose.

These masks are three-ply (three layers). This three-ply material is made from melt-blown polymer, most commonly polypropylene, placed between non-woven fabrics. The melt-blown material acts as the filter that stops microbes from

entering or exiting the mask. Pleats or folds are commonly used to allow the user to expand the mask such that it covers the area from the nose to the chin. The masks are secured to the face with ear loops, head ties, or elastic straps.

Disposable Type  N95 or KN 95 face masks

The N 95 face masks are quite efficient but they are generally expensive. Similar type of face masks are made in China and are called KN 95 and the KN 95 face masks are cheaper than the original N95. But as a whole both N 95 and the KN 95 are expensive than other face masks. The N 95 and the KN 95 are disposable, but they can be washed and reused in extreme emergency.

The N 95 and KN 95 consists of multiple layers of nonwoven fabric, often made from polypropylene. The two outward protective layers of fabric, covering the inside and outside of the mask, are created using spun bonding.  These masks are made from synthetic plastic fibers, usually polypropylene (PP). They also contain rubber and metal for the straps, staples, and nose bar.

Reusable & Washable Cloth Face Masks: 

There are numerous types of face masks available in the market and they are of purely fabric origin. These masks are of various shapes, types and designs. Most of these types of face masks are very cheap but there are some branded face masks that are very expensive. These fabric made face masks are washable and reusable. These masks are free from plastic and polypropylene, naturally biodegradable and do not pose any threat for the environment.

Threat to the Environment:

The disposable or single use face masks are made from a variety of melt blown plastics and are difficult to recycle due to both composition and risk of contamination and infection. These masks enter rivers and oceans when they are littered or otherwise improperly discarded, when waste management systems are inadequate or non-existent, or when these systems become overwhelmed due to increased volumes of waste.

The ‘Ocean Asia’ report states that plastic in the marine environment can have a devastating impact on wildlife and ecosystems. Face masks in the marine environment serve as a source of micro-plastic and could take around 450 years to fully decompose. It says though studies examining the decomposition of face masks are limited, a recent study of plastic pollution in the Magdalena River, Columbia, found that “the degradation of nonwoven synthetic textiles was the predominant origin of micro-plastic micro-fibers found in both water and sediment samples.

The design of face masks, and particularly ear loops, makes them possible entanglement risk for wildlife. In July, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) in the UK reported encountering a Sea gull with its feet tangled in the straps of a face mask. Similarly, a group of volunteers conducting a beach cleanup in Miami, USA, found “a dead fish tangled in the ear loops of a disposable blue facemask. A Brazilian marine conservation organization, also reported finding a penguin with a mask in its stomach on a sea beach in Sao Paulo.

Prevention of Pollution by the disposable Face Masks:

The COVID 19 pandemic may last for some more years and if we continue to discard the plastic based and plastic coated disposable masks without taking proper care, may be after few years we shall find that COVID 19 is under control but the damage to the environment by the disposable face masks has gone beyond control.

As we know the disposable face masks are made with plastic or polypropylene fibers and these are as harmful as the normal plastics and they do not decompose easily. Most of the plastic items take hundreds of years to decompose and within that period it will create various problems for the environment and animals. If discarded in land or in a drainage system, it will obstruct the water flow and if discarded in water it may create various problems aquatic animals and birds.

Actions to be taken to reduce the Pollution from disposable Face Masks:

The wearing of face coverings or masks is likely to continue for few years more and we must think about how we can keep ourselves and others safe and continue to reduce the use of plastic. We should take the following actions:

Recycling of the Disposable Face Masks

A French company named ‘PLAXTIL’ which has been collecting disposable face masks from June 2019 and they have come up with a way to recycle the old disposable face masks and turn them into a raw material to produce various plastic products. This organization has already recycled 70,000 face masks with the help of collection points set up in local supermarkets.

The collected old and used face masks first have to be quarantined for four days. Afterwards, the disposable masks are shredded into pieces and treated with UV light and the masks are made germ free. Those small mask fragments are then shredded down even further and mixed with a binding agent to produce raw materials. The newly obtained raw material is currently being used to produce plastic visors, but it can also be used to make other plastic products.

Recycling of the single use disposable face masks and use them to produce other plastic products is a brilliant innovation. The government or the private sector enterprises of our country make initiate such an endeavor to save the people from the very contiguous COVID 19 germs and also save the environment from the dangers of the plastic pollution.

Author is an Assistant Professor of Maritime Science Department at Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman Maritime University, Dhaka, Bangladesh

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