The coronavirus pandemic has hit the whole world, and while the main focus is on fighting the disease, nature’s pollution from face masks is often overlooked. In most countries, wearing them is mandatory in order to reduce the risk of transmission of the disease between humans. Due to the huge number of face masks used, they have also become one of the major sources of pollution.

Negative impact on life and the environment

Face masks are not something that can be easily decomposed, they are usually made of polymeric materials. It is estimated that about 75% of the used masks end up in the dumps or in the oceans, where they significantly disrupt the life of sea creatures.

The key filter layer of face masks is made of polypropylene and can take up to 500 years for it to decompose in nature. The masks eventually break down into microplastics that contaminate rivers and oceans. In the ocean environment, many creatures also treat face masks as food. Face masks then get stuck in the bodies of many creatures, which can result in their deaths. Because microplastic contamination disrupts the entire food chain, humans eventually consume contaminated food.

The management of medical supplies has not yet been effectively addressed and is becoming a significant waste. According to Hong Kong’s environmental group OceansAsia, up to 1.5 billion face masks reached the world’s oceans in 2020.

Action is needed

Inger Andersen, head of the United Nations’ Environment Agency (UNEP), predicts that if no action is taken, the amount of plastics ending up in the ocean will triple from 11 to 29 million tonnes a year by 2040. The problem with face masks must not be ignored and needs to be acted upon. The use of reusable face masks and the use of natural recyclable materials for their production could alleviate the problem.