Nothing has come to symbolize the global response to COVID-19 more than the now-ubiquitous facemask.
Globally, an estimated 129 billion masks (most of them disposable) are being used every month, according to one estimate, making them the most prominent piece of personal protective equipment (PPE) deployed against the coronavirus.
But concerns are now being raised that the very item touted as inhibiting the spread of the pandemic poses a threat to the environment and, by extension, to public health. “With increasing reports on inappropriate disposal of masks, it is urgent to recognize this potential environmental threat and prevent it from becoming the next plastics problem,” warns a new study.
The study, “Preventing Masks from Becoming the Next Plastics Problem,” was written by Elvis Genbo Xu, department of biology at the University of Southern Denmark, and Zhiyong Jason Ren, department of civil and environmental engineering and Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment at Princeton University.
Arguing that waste plastics are “one of the most prevalent environmental pollutants today,” the authors point out that, even before COVID, “300 million tons of plastics are produced globally per year and most end up in nature as waste.” The authors write that plastics cannot readily be biodegraded but fragment into smaller plastic particles, namely micro-and nano-plastics that are widespread in ecosystems. “Ingestion of microplastics is known to cause direct adverse effects and also expose organisms to toxic chemicals and pathogenic microorganisms,” the authors add.
“Persistence and Accumulation in the Environment”
Compounding what the authors believe are the environmental threats posed by plastic waste, is the COVID-related exponential growth in disposable masks, which the authors call “waste masks.” They note that different polymers are used in mask manufacturing, and fabric polypropylene is used in most. Polypropylene is one of the most commonly used plastics, the authors point out, and the high usage has led to a large waste accumulation in the environment.
“Once in the environment, the mask is subject to solar radiation and heat, but the degradation of polypropylene is retarded due to its high hydrophobicity, high molecular weight, lacking an active functional group, and continuous chain of repetitive methylene units,” the authors explain. “These recalcitrant properties lead to persistence and accumulation in the environment.”
The authors note what happens without an adequate system for disposal.“When not properly collected and managed, masks can be transported from land into freshwater and into marine environments by surface run-off, river flows, oceanic currents, wind, and animals (via entangle or ingestion),” the authors note. “The occurrence of waste masks has been increasingly reported in different environments and social media have shared wildlife tangled in elastic straps of masks. 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.”
Solving One Problem, Creating Another?
A new generation of disposable masks could create new risks.
“A newer and bigger concern is that the masks are directly made from micro-sized plastic fibers (thickness of ~1 to 10 micrometers). When breaking down in the environment, the mask may release more micro-sized plastics, easier and faster than bulk plastics like plastic bags. Such impacts can be worsened by a new-generation mask, nano-masks, which directly use nano-sized plastic fibers (with a diameter smaller than 1 micrometer) and add a new source of nano-plastic pollution.”
If the authors are correct in saying that masks are “irreplaceable in fighting the pandemic” but carry their own set of risks, what, then, should be done? The authors recommend the environmental research community engage in “critical rethinking” of the three “Rs”: regulate (life-cycle evaluation on production, disposal, and decontamination), reuse (washable masks), and replace (biodegradable materials) single-use masks. The authors also suggest mask-only trash cans for collection and disposal.
“Assertions that microplastics and trace chemicals from plastic products have substantial environmental impacts are based on speculative, rather than established, science,’ Angela Logomasini, Ph. D., director of risk policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, tells Health Care News. “Nonetheless, it’s not good for plastic or any other waste – large or small – to enter the environment, which is why we need to ensure proper waste disposal practices, prevent litter, and pursue efforts to clean up litter and ocean pollution. While the United States does a relatively good job in that regard, many less-developed countries in Asia and Africa, as well as Socialist China, have poor disposal practices, including open dumps that allow waste to enter the environment, which is a serious problem that warrants attention.”
Bonner R. Cohen, Ph.D., (email@example.com) is a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research.