Over 1.5 billion Covid-19 face masks estimated to enter oceans in 2020

A new report released this week has revealed that the global Covid-19 pandemic has seriously increased the amount of plastic pollution entering the marine environment due to a surge in disposable face masks and other PPE. It highlights yet again how our short sightedness is negatively effecting the world around us.

A disposable face mask is collected on the beach in the UK by litter pickers

As if 2020 hasn’t been depressing enough already, experts believe that over a billion disposable face masks may now be floating around in our oceans thanks to the global coronavirus pandemic. That is according to a new report by Hong-Kong-based environmental charity OceansAsia, entitled ‘Masks on the Beach: The Impact of COVID-19 on Marine Plastic Pollution’. Based on a global production estimate of 52 billion single-use masks being manufactured in 2020, and a conservative loss rate of 3% (which could be much higher), they estimate that 1.56 billion may now be in our oceans. With an average of 3-4 grams of polypropylene for each one, that means as much as 6,240 metric tonnes of fresh plastic pollution. With an estimated 450 year lifespan, this is a serious and long-term problem.

Unfortunately, face masks are not the only increase in plastic pollution that has occurred as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. Other forms of PPE including disposable gloves, Perspex face shields and plastic aprons have also seen a surge in production. Given how poorly face masks have been disposed of, it is surely only a matter of time before more of these are found in our oceans as well. Considering none of these products are made from recycled materials it also means a sharp increase in virgin plastic production this year, which will also have required an unimaginable amount of energy and oil to make.

“The 1.56 billion face masks that will likely enter our oceans in 2020 are just the tip of the iceberg” says Dr. Teale Phelps Bondaroff, Director of Research for OceansAsia, and lead author of the report. He goes on to explain that face masks are “just a small fraction of the estimated 8 to 12 million metric tonnes of plastic that enter our oceans each year.” According to his colleague Gary Stokes, Operations Director at OceansAsia, “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.”

OceansAsia Operations Director, Gary Stokes, holds aloft collections of face masks made throughout the year (photo via OceansAsia)

Given the huge amount of attention towards plastic pollution and other marine conservation issues in recent years, this report feels very much like a big step backwards. Obviously face coverings have been a hugely important tool in helping stop the spread of Covid-19 and wearing them should not be discouraged. However, at the same time our dependence on single-use plastic masks has been very much avoidable.

Not only are several plastic free alternatives available, such as re-useable homemade fabric masks and other face coverings like scarfs and bandanas, but a lack of action from leading governments has also added to the problem. As early as March, organisations like OceansAsia were finding face masks on beaches and ringing the alarm bells about the potential impacts they could have on the marine environment. As well as highlighting the need for proper mask-disposal infrastructures to be put in place. But it appears their calls fell on death ears and yet again the well-being of the natural world was discounted in order to benefit ourselves.

In order to stop the problem increasing, OceansAsia are encouraging people to make the switch to re-usable non-plastic masks for the remainder of the pandemic and calling on governments to do the same. Whilst we are starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel, with a number of promising vaccines being rolled out over the next few months, the masks we have been using to protect ourselves will be floating around in the ocean until long after we are gone.

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