SAN DIEGO, Calif. — For months, we’ve seen face masks in places they shouldn’t be: storm drains, streets, beaches, and parks.
Now, we’re learning just how many could be flooding our oceans.
“Once plastic enters the marine environment, it’s very difficult to move," said Dr. Teale Phelps Bondaroff, director of research for OceansAsia.
The marine conservation group has been tracking the number of face masks washing up on a remote island south of Hong Kong since the pandemic started.
“About six weeks after COVID hit Hong Kong, so late February, we began finding masks, and lots of masks," said Bondaroff. “What’s remarkable is we weren’t finding face masks before COVID.”
Masks are made with polypropylene, which Bondaroff describes as thin fibers of plastic.
"The fact that we are starting to find masks that are breaking up indicates that this is a real problem, that microplastics are being produced by masks," he said.
These tiny pieces of plastic can remain in the ocean for hundreds of years, threatening fish and even polluting the air.
“The question that we couldn’t answer was how many are entering our oceans? We just didn’t know," said Dr. Bondaroff.
OceansAsia launched a study to find the answer and recently shared its findings.
Of the estimated 52 billion masks manufactured globally in 2020, it's believed 1.56 billion will enter our oceans this year, resulting in an additional 4,680 to 6,240 metric tonnes of marine plastic pollution
Bondaroff says the report used a conservative loss rate of 3 percent, and the average weight of 3 to 4 grams for a single-use polypropylene surgical face mask, to arrive at the estimate.
“The 1.56 billion face masks that have entered our oceans in 2020 are there for the long run. They will remain in the ocean for 450 years or more, and they’ll break into smaller pieces.”
The report notes global sales of face masks surged from around $800 million in 2019 to $166 billion in 2020.
“That’s important, we need to keep people safe, but at the same time that has a lasting impact on our environment, and we’re seeing that on the beaches," said Bondaroff.
And he says, unfortunately, this problem makes up only a small fraction of the plastic pollution invading our oceans.
The report asks people to wear reusable masks whenever possible, dispose of masks responsibly and reduce their overall consumption of single-use plastic. It also calls on governments to:
- Implement policies designed to encourage the use of reusable masks, such as releasing guidelines regarding the proper manufacture and use of reusable masks.
- Foster innovation and the development of sustainable alternatives to single-use plastic masks.
- Discourage littering by increasing fines, and educate the public about responsible ways to dispose of masks.
- Repair and improve waste management systems to reduce losses and spillage.