The world’s oceans will be inundated with an estimated 1.56 billion face masks by the end of 2020, a new report from a marine conservation organization reported on Dec. 7.
OceansAsia said the masks with result in an additional 4,680 to 6,240 tonnes of marine plastic pollution, and each mask will take as long as 450 years to break down. To put it in perspective, one tonne is equivalent to the weight of the average small car.
However, lead author and Vancouver Island resident Teale Phelps Bondaroff, said this is only the tip of the iceberg.
“The 4,680 to 6,240 metric tonnes of face masks are just a small fraction of the estimated 8- to 12-million metric tonnes of plastic that enter our oceans each year,” he said.
COVID-19 has caused a spike in plastic consumption, according to the report, and it’s not just masks people should be worried about.
“Hygiene concerns and greater reliance on takeaway food has led to increased use of plastics, particularly plastic packaging,” said Gary Stokes, director of operations of OceansAsia. “Meanwhile, a number of measures designed to reduce plastic consumption, like single-use plastic bag bans, have been delayed, paused or rolled back.”
Victoria council decided to pause putting its checkout bag regulation bylaw into effect when COVID-19 hit. It’s now expected to begin on April 15, 2021.
Single-use face masks are typically made from a fossil-fuel derived plastic called polypropylene. Not only does the material take hundreds of years to break down, but it also sheds tiny micro-plastics that people often end up consuming through seafood.
Masks enter oceans when they are littered, when waste management systems are inadequate, or when these systems are overwhelmed by an influx of waste. The effects are devastating.
“Plastic pollution kills an estimated 100,000 marine mammals and turtles, over a million seabirds, and even greater numbers of fish, invertebrates and other animals each year,” Stokes said.
Of course, the report isn’t asking people to stop wearing masks during COVID-19, but it is asking that people use reusable masks whenever possible and dispose of single-use masks responsibly.
“There are reusable and sustainable options for almost every single single-use plastic item,” Phelps Bondaroff said. “We all have a role to play.”
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