Masks are a ticking plastic bomb for the environment

Masks are a ticking plastic bomb for the environment

Humanity uses nearly 130 billion masks a month - 3 million per minute. Most are disposable plastic microfiber masks. Researchers from Princeton University and the University of Southern Denmark are warning against the effects of the pandemic on the environment.

"With the growing number of reports of incorrect disposal of masks, we need to recognize the potential for environmental hazards and prevent another plastic problem from arising," researchers write in the magazine Frontiers of Environmental Science & Engineering.

The scale of production of disposable masks is similar to the scale of production of plastic bottles, which is estimated at 43 billion per month. Disposal of bottles is regulated, and 25 percent. of them are processed. There are no such regulations for the masks.

Disposable masks are often made of plastic fibres that are not biodegradable and, what is worse, can break down into smaller micro-and nano plastic particles, which then spread, can easily hit, among others. for freshwater reservoirs, oceans. “A particular new risk is that the masks are already made of plastic microfibers (1-10 microns thick). When they break down in the environment, they can therefore release microparticles more easily and faster than a one-piece bag or bottle does, ”the researchers write.

"The effects could be even worse with next-generation masks, nanomas that already contain plastic nanoparticles (less than 1 micrometre in diameter), and are a new source of nanoparticle contamination," they continue.

Researchers admit that they do not know exactly to what extent masks contribute to the contamination of the environment with micro-and nano plastics, as there is no data on the disintegration of masks so far.

“But we know that, like plastic waste, disposable masks can also collect and release harmful chemicals and biological substances such as bisphenol A, heavy metals, and harmful microorganisms. They can be harmful to plants, animals and people ”- emphasizes Prof. Elvis Genbo Xu from the University of Southern Denmark.

Researchers propose several remedial actions. First of all, special baskets where only masks will be thrown will help. Secondly, standards and recommendations for the disposal of used masks are needed. Disposable masks can also be replaced with reusable products. Another solution is the use of biodegradable materials.

More information on the pages:

https://sciencesources.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2021-03/uosd-fma031021.php

https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs11783-021-1413-7 (PAP)

author: Marek Matacz