Findings from a new study show that every month, over 129 billion face masks generally made from plastic microfibers, are added to existing plastic wastes.The number equates to a rate of 3 million masks per minute of plastic pollution. According to study authors Professors Zhiyong Jason Ren and Elvis Genbo Xu, the next emerging problem is the potential environmental threats posed by the massive amount of improperly disposed face masks.
The Problem with Disposable Face Mask Plastics : They are Non-Biodegradable
Although the current global health crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic requires the widespread use of disposable face masks, the need for guidelines on proper mask disposal and recycling has been overlooked.
Considering that disposable face masks are made from non-biodegradable plastic materials, they will weather and fragment while in landfills, and then break down into microscopic particles in just a span of a few weeks. If neglected, they will break further into nano-plastic residues that are very harmful to the environment.
While plastic bottles are also mass produced in the same scale as face masks, the difference is that plastic bottles have guidelines for disposal and recycling. As it is, discarded face masks are simply disposed along with other solid wastes. If not addressed, the nanoplastics they produce will end up in different protected environments, in oceans and freshwater systems.
According to the researchers, they are troubled by the lack of information about mask degradation in nature; but they know that these masks can release and amsss biological substances and harmful chemicals. This includes pathogenic microorganisms, bisphenol A, and heavy metals which can indirectly impact humans, plants, and animals.
What the Study Authors are Putting Forward as Immediate Solutions
Nonetheless, professors Ren and Xu gave suggestions for tackling the emerging problem. The first is to allocate trash cans specifically for masks, which if instituted as a guideline must be strictly implemented and standardized.
The other suggestion is for manufacturers to produce biodegradable face masks, while replacing the plastics in the existing disposable masks with reusable materials like cotton.
Professor Elvis Genbo Xu is an Environmental Toxicologist at the University of Southern Denmark, while Zhiyong Jason Ren is a professor at Princeton University’s Civil and Environmental Engineering.