Face-masks are made up of a cotton string, metal nose clips, plastic coverings and filters such as polypropylene (PP). This polymer of plastic, although recyclable, is not biodegradable. When masks enter ecosystems, they remain for a long time, posing multiple threats to wildlife.
Firstly, the manufacturing of PP (along with other plastics) includes toxic additives such as lead and cadmium. Once masks enter the sea, so do these toxins. What is more, these plastics also act as a ‘sponge’ for other heavy metals already present in the ocean. As metals accumulate and concentrate, they present a health concern for aquatic life.
Beyond the leaching and absorbing of chemicals, a sea of PPE poses risks such as ingestion and entanglement. When ingested, plastics can prove fatal to marine life.
Thats why it is essential that masks are disposed of correctly.
Although recyclable, masks are considered ‘contaminated waste’ and must be disposed of within general waste.
According to the 2018/19 statistics of waste management, of the 25.6 million tonnes of waste
From these statistics, it is likely masks are either buried or likely incinerated. Although better than polluting our oceans, these methods are not without consequence. Landfills are known to leach out dangerous chemicals and the incineration of plastics such as PP release dioxins and vinyl chloride, both of which are poisonous.
So when both disposed of and non disposed of masks pose a threat to the environment, it makes you wonder, what can we do to help? The risk masks pose when correctly disposed of is considerably less than when they are littered, so it is always best to take care of how you get rid of your PPE.
We hope to see a larger movement towards the bio-engineering of plastic free alternatives, to keep the planet safe, as well as our own people. Plastic free visors are already on the market, and it’s promising to think masks could head this way.
Where possible, a handmade or a sustainably sourced reusable mask is the best option.
Combating both a health and plastic pandemic is a difficult task. But if everyone makes a small effort, it will help make a great change.
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