The worldwide outbreak of novel coronavirus (COVID-19) prompted many to purchase face masks for protection. Unfortunately, these protective masks have been harming the environment. Why is that? The masks are made of the plastic polypropylene, which is not easily biodegradable. No surprise then that the accumulation of discarded face masks litters the environment and poses serious risks to the equilibrium of habitats and the health of wildlife, especially marine organisms. Environmental groups are now sounding the alarm on how cast-off coronavirus masks are escalating the litter and plastic pollution predicaments.
“We only have had masks for the last six to eight weeks, in a massive volume…we are now seeing the effect on the environment,” explained Gary Stokes, founder of Oceans Asia, a marine conservation organization. Stokes elaborated with the example of the Soko Islands off Hong Kong. On one 100-meter stretch of beach, Stokes discovered 70 masks, then an additional 30 the following week.
Hong Kong’s dense population means that its citizens have struggled with plastic waste. Single-use plastic makes matters more challenging. What’s more, Hong Kong does not effectively recycle all its waste. Instead, roughly 70% of its garbage ends up in landfills. That 70% is equivalent to approximately 6 million tons of refuse. Conservationists have been attempting to remove these masks from the environment through beach clean-ups.
“Nobody wants to go to the forest and find masks littered everywhere or used masks on the beaches. It is unhygienic and dangerous,” added Laurence McCook, head of Oceans Conservation at the World Wildlife Fund in Hong Kong.
Jerome Adams, the United States Surgeon General, has also advised people to stop purchasing medical face masks, as they are ineffective at preventing COVID-19. Scaling back public purchasing of the masks would not only keep more masks available for medical professionals, but could also reduce the amount being discarded and its impact on the environment.
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