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Explained: How COVID-19 face masks are injurious to the environment

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We use an astounding 129 billion face masks globally every month -- that is three million a minute. Most of them are disposable face masks made from plastic microfibers and they end up worsening the climate crisis.

Explained: How COVID-19 face masks are injurious to the environment
Face masks are now part of the new normal around the world amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. They are the first line of defence and their importance in public spaces cannot be overstated. Till countries around the world can successfully reach their vaccination goals, face masks will prevail.
While they save us from infection, masks have emerged as a major pollutant. Improper disposal of masks has taken them to rivers and seas like every other pollutant.
Face masks and environmental pollution
A new study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) indicates that over 7,200 tonnes of medical waste are being produced every day since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Disposable face masks are the majority of this waste and they end up in seas and oceans, contaminating the environment.
Science Daily reported “recent studies estimate that we use an astounding 129 billion face masks globally every month -- that is three million a minute. Most of them are disposable face masks made from plastic microfibers.”
Researchers warn that many of these masks end up as toxic micro and nano plastic or act as carriers for other toxins in the environment. Since disposable masks are made of plastic they are not biodegradable but break down into smaller fragments.
According to a report by Environmental Advances, a face mask is capable of releasing up to 173,000 plastic microfibers into the seas every day.
Potential solutions
There are no any fixed guidelines for disposing of masks safely but by adopting a few green solutions, we can ensure that these face masks do not become the next plastic problem for a planet already grappling with global warming and climate change.
“Perhaps unsurprisingly, the approaches that incorporate reusable aspects stand to have not only the greatest cost savings, but also a significant reduction in waste,” says Giovanni Traverso, an MIT assistant professor of mechanical engineering, a gastroenterologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and the senior author of the MIT study.
Solutions
  • Reusable masks made of cloth, cotton or other washable fabrics. A two-layered cloth mask is effective against the virus and can be washed and disinfected after everyday use, greatly reducing the disposable face mask problem.
  • Scientists like Giovanni Traverso have developed innovative solutions like a reusable N-95 masks made of silicone rubber. The mask has a filter that can either be sterilised or disposed of after use. The masks can be sterilised with heat or bleach and are fit for multiple uses. A reusable N-95 mask can greatly reduce overall costs and wastage.
  • Strict rules and enforcement of mask disposal, with dedicated collection sites and mask-only bins. Although this is a challenge for many nations, simple solutions and strict enforcement can genuinely help solve the face mask disposal problem.
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