Updated: Oct 18, 2021
The advent of the COVID-19 pandemic has sparked an influx in the number of face masks produced and worn globally. Masks are necessary, but with the betterment of one global issue – the pandemic- comes the regression of another: environmental health. Microplastics found in masks pass unchanged through mask use and disposal into marine ecosystems.
Microplastics originate from variety of sources
Primary microplastics are produced commercially and are most often seen in beauty products and textiles. Those present in cosmetic products are known as microbeads. Secondary microplastics result from the breaking down of larger plastics into smaller pieces through UV radiation, wave action, and wind abrasion. Both are similar in that they easily enter the environment, whether through beauty product disposal or natural weathering.
Microplastics deteriorate marine ecosystems because of their long “afterlife” or non-biodegradable properties. These particles can take up to 450 years to break down into environmentally harmless matter.
The bulk of these small particles consist of polymers of hydrocarbon chains. More complex polymers include chemicals such as phthalates, polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), and tetrabromobisphenol A (TBBPA), making them all the more dangerous for animals to digest. These pesticides, among other things, are linked closely to cancer, endocrine disruption, neurotoxicity, and kidney and liver defects.
How microplastics may harm animals in numerous ways.
The plastic buildup in the world’s oceans can strangle marine life. Plastic may also be mistaken for food and eaten by animals, yielding fullness without nutrition, after which animals experience the symptoms of starvation. Additionally, most animals’ digestive systems are unsuited for the digestion of complex plastics. While scientists are unsure of the exact effects plastics may have on animal digestion, a group from King’s College in London hypothesizes that cumulative plastic buildup may be toxic.
Not only does microplastic ingestion reduce energy, but it also results in reproductive and neural malfunction. Seemingly negligible amounts of microplastics have a detrimental impact: they invade marine food webs, affecting numerous animals beyond the initial consumer. For example, when a predator preys on another animal with plastic circulating its system, the predator inadvertently consumes some of the plastic.
Why industry produces so much microplastic byproduct
Industries are attracted to plastics because of their lightness, low densities (that lessen the impact of emissions), and versatility.
The mass production of synthetic materials like polyvinyl chloride, low-density polyethylene, polystyrene, and polymethyl methacrylate began after World War II when natural rubber was in short supply. The 1970s marked an increased rate of polyethylene production, and thus, lowered the costs of the material. However, despite its relatively cheap price, these materials’ harm lies in their size, which permits them to flow through industrial processes, consumer use, and disposal, and wastewater treatment processes intact. Experts suggest that peoples’ excessive use of plastic for most of our personal needs — not the moderate industrial use of plastic — is causing the environment to respond so strongly.
Unfortunately, with the onslaught of COVID-19, mask production has only compounded this problem’s size. Before the pandemic, China was the world’s leading producer of facial and surgical masks. Even with the COVID-19 pandemic, the country has only highlighted its lead by increasing production twelve-fold.
Small steps play large role in minimizing microplastic flow into marine environments
Given the magnitude of microplastic pollution, the impact that individuals can have may seem negligible. There is, however, evidence to suggest that specific steps can be taken to moderate the effects of pollution while still maintaining an environment that discourages viral transmission.
Most tend to use several masks per day to lessen transmission chances, but this only results in increased deposits of microplastics in the environment after masks are disposed of. While medical personnel should not reduce the frequency with which they change masks, others can wash masks after use at home. It should be noted that the coronavirus has been proven to live for days on masks at room temperature. If possible, mask-wearers should avoid disposable masks, as they are more likely to be thrown more often.
Masks should, under no circumstances, be recycled — this makes them a significant biohazard to workers concerned with recycling transportation and circulation. The best way to dispose of masks is to throw them away at home in a sealed bag within a lidded container. Ideally, people should own multiple non-disposable masks and always carry a spare when outside the house.
Through Teen Lenses: As all things in life, our necessary use of masks today may have adverse effects, in this case, on the environment. What would you guess are these effects? What is your experience with wearing and disposing of masks?
“ Masks would increase pollution since quite often you would see a few on the side of the road or on the sidewalk. The non-reusable surgical masks are hurtful toward the environment since they have to be discarded after a short amount of time. This would result in the environmental landscape being littered with those light blue pieces of cloth. I, quite often, misplace these masks after a day or two of using it. If these masks were displaced outside, they would qualify as pollution.” Rebecca Zheleznykak, 16, Junior at Langley High School, McLean, VA
“Some unfavorable effects of using masks that can potentially influence the environment can include an increase in pollution, waste, and the compiling of masks in landfills and the ocean that can interrupt the lives of animals. I’ve always been cautious and aware of disposing masks properly and ensuring that it does not belong in the middle of the ocean or adds to additional factors of pollution and waste.” Ivy Chen, 16, Junior at Langley High School, McLean, VA
“I would guess the impact of disposable masks on the environment is a negative one since I’ve seen a lot of masks just laying on the ground. If these masks also end up in oceans there could be even more issues if animals mistake a mask for food and eat it. Personally, my family uses reusable masks so I haven’t had to worry about disposable ones and disposing of them even though I can see how they pose a threat to the environment.” Brianna Ross, 16, Junior at Langley High School, McLean, VA
“To be very honest, I have never really given this a thought. Now that I am being forced to think beyond the necessary benefits of mask-wearing and disposal in our COVID-torn society, I suspect that the practice may detrimentally affect landfills and marine life. I don’t know much on the topic- and I am sure that most kids my age don’t either.” Anonymous, 17, Junior at Langley High School, McLean, VA