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Billions of Castoff Face Masks: COVID Debris Threatens a Global Ecological Disaster

Fuelled by COVID, 129 billion face masks are now used and trashed every month around the world. From spreading infection to entangling birds to littering the oceans, we’re now facing a pandemic of pollution

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A used, abandoned face mask in Times Square, New York during a Nor'easter
A used, abandoned face mask to protect against COVID-19 in Times Square, New York during a snow stormCredit: JEENAH MOON/ REUTERS

I am a gleaner of tossed face masks. 

I carry a bag with me wherever I walk, collecting discarded single-use face masks lying in the streets or cast into bushes. Face masks of all colors and sizes: children's masks decorated with unicorns and emojis; wet masks covered in leaves, half-trampled, torn. I pick them up and bring them home.

I'm not quite sure what to do with my collection, but I know I'm on a lonely mission: to clean scattered face masks off the streets of my small Israeli city of Modiin.

For the past few months, as Israel has entered and exited lockdowns and gyms have closed, I've been walking the streets for exercise, climbing up and down the stairs of my hilly town. As I go, I daydream.

Facemasks tossed in the streets of the Israeli city of Modiin collected by the author, Josie GlausiuszCredit: Josie Glausiusz

One morning, thinking of news reports of birds hobbled by face masks wrapped around their feet, I looked down and saw a face mask lying on the sidewalk. Then another. On an impulse, I picked them up and wrapped the loops around my fingers. I plucked up every face mask in my path. 

By the time I had arrived home, an hour later, I had 25 of these plasticky protectors looped around my fingers. Yes, I did wash my hands very thoroughly for a very long time with a lot of soap.

The next day, I took a bag with me and walked a slightly different route. I can now spot these masks from a distance, mostly by color (mostly pale blue). Every day, another bag of masks. Amid chaos, these tiny acts of cleaning a small slice of the world gives me a sense of control. 

But by now I'm beginning to wonder why people drop these face-masks so easily and neglect to pick them up. Do they not notice? Do they not care? 

They certainly should care. It's now estimated that each month, 129 billion face masks and 65 billion gloves are used and disposed of globally. Birds have died after becoming entangled in face masks, and marine animals can easily choke on them. In Israel, says marine ecologist Dror Angel of the University of Haifa, beaches in the ancient city of Acre "provide terrible images of the Covid-related items that have washed out to sea and been swept back by waves: masks, gloves, wipes, alcogel bottles." 

The problem is magnified as Israel's coast is suffering its worst maritime pollution in decades, after an unreported oil spill from a tanker 50 kilometers off the Israeli coast propelled some 1,200 tons of black tar onto the beaches, killing baby turtles and birds. Now stuck in the gooey tar, "all that Covid debris [is] all the harder to collect and remove," Angel says.

It's not just Israel that is accumulating Covid debris. An online survey of 1033 people in several countries, including Australia, the United States, the United Kingdom, Singapore, Sri Lanka and India found that one-quarter of respondents used and discarded five face masks every week.

A facemasked man passes a roadside mural in New Delhi, India last month.Credit: SAJJAD HUSSAIN - AFP

The recent study, published in the journal Environmental Challenges and led by Satheeskumar Navaratnam of the School of Engineering at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia, revealed that while almost half of respondents disposed of their masks in a "mixed waste" or hazardous waste bin, ten percent of those surveyed burned them and a full 19 percent of individuals "recklessly throw away the face masks in the street." 

Another study, conducted in the UK, calculated that "if every person in the UK uses one single-use mask each day for a year, it will create a total waste of 124,000 tonnes, 66,000 tonnes of which would be unrecyclable contaminated plastic waste.״

Plastic debris can absorb nutrients from the environment, providing habitat for pathogenic bacteria or viruses; garbage collectors can be exposed to these pathogens, and face masks could harbor infectious infectious COVID virus for up to seven days, according to data collected by researchers at the School of Public Health at the University of Hong Kong. 

Other hazards are less visible. Disposable face masks are produced from a potpourri of plastic polymers such as polypropylene, polyurethane, polyacrylonitrile, polystyrene, polycarbonate, polyethylene, or polyester.

A facemasked man walks through Red Square, Moscow during heavy snowfall this monthCredit: YURI KADOBNOV - AFP

Single-use face masks that enter freshwater, oceans or that litter public spaces could be emerging new source of microplastic fibers in the environment, write Oluniyi Fadare of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing and Elvis Okoffo of the University of Queensland in Woolloongabba, Australia, as the plastics break down into smaller particles less than 5 millimeters in diameter. 

Such microplastics, which have been identified in marine habitats across the globe, can be ingested by molluscs, fish, and seabirds, causing injury and death.

"Indiscriminately disposed face masks in the environment," note Fadare and Okoffo, could themselves act as a medium for disease outbreak, as human pathogens can colonize them. Indeed, microplastics in the ocean could act as a long-distance transport mechanism for human and animal pathogens.

What is to be done? For starters, people can wear reusable, washable, fabric masks. But if my wanderings-around-town are any proof, many people prefer the disposable kind. Alternatively, Navaratnam and colleagues propose making face-masks out of biodegradable polymers derived from natural fibers such as cactus, banana, avocado, lotus, sisal, straw, hemp, sugar cane and even tea leaf waste.

Plastic derivatives from face masks could also be recycled into construction materials or industrial adhesive tapes, they say, although research into this is limited as it is a new waste.      

A boy wearing a facemask walks past a mural warning people about the risk of COVID, painted by Mathare Roots youth group graffiti in Nairobi, Kenya.Credit: Brian Inganga,AP

According to Dr Navaratnam, several initiatives around the world are focused on developing scalable quantities of biodegradable masks that would help curb the rise in COVID-related plastic waste, for instance using hemp or wood fibers (including nano-materials made originating in wood.)

In India, one enterprising "Recycle Man," Binish Desai, has developed a method for converting discarded face masks into bricks. In Israel, the company UBQ has developed a method for turning unsorted garbage into thermoplastic pellets that could also be turned into bricks

In the absence of face-masks crafted from bananas or tea-leaves, I offer this cri de coeur: stop littering our streets with this noxious mess.

I encourage others to pick up used face masks from the pavements – by all means, wear gloves for this disgusting task – and talk to others about the hazards of jettisoned face-masks. Dispose of them in waste-bins and snip the loops off so that birds don't get entangled in them. 

As Fadare and Okoffo write, "sensitization of the populace" can greatly help in reducing face mask litter, noting that, "it will indeed be laudable if the awareness on safeguarding our environment through reduction, elimination (where possible) and proper management of our disposable face masks can as well be carried along. Who knows? Plastic pollution may be the next world pandemic."

Josie Glausiusz is a freelance journalist who writes about science and the environment for Nature, National Geographic, Scientific American, Hakai Magazine, Aeon, Sapiens and Undark Magazine. Twitter: @josiegz

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