Report warns that disposable face masks could become next ‘plastic problem’


A new report has warned that disposable face masks could become the next ‘plastic problem’.

The University of Southern Denmark-led study details estimates of some three million masks that are being used globally each minute.

With no official statistics available on how many of these masks are disposed of, the study explains that the estimated 129 billion disposable face masks used a month puts them on par with plastic bottle usage – of which, 43 billion are disposed of each month.

However, it adds that 25% of these bottles are recycled. There is no official guidance on mask recycling, which the authors say makes them more likely to be disposed of as solid waste and as a result end up in marine environments.

The report highlights the possible dangers posed to such environments from the masks, including particle toxicity, chemical toxicity and pathogenic microorganism vectors. However, said that a ‘bigger’ concern is the masks being made from micro-sized plastic fibres which, when breaking down, could be released easier and faster than bulk plastic such as bags.

As a result, the report calls for interdisciplinary research on the environmental fates of disposable masks, including on accumulation, fragmentation, degradation, release of micro and nanoplastics, harmful chemicals and pathogens. Further to this would be the implementation of mask-only waste bins and strict waste management of masks, and the development of biodegradable face masks – although, the report adds that this would come at a higher cost and the safety of such materials would need to be considered.

The report reads, “Disposable plastic items including masks are irreplaceable in fighting the pandemic, and the concerns about reusable plastics as vectors for virus have led to delays in recycling programs and single-use plastic regulations. While there are concerns about transmission via contaminated household plastic items, the probability of such transmission is considered low compared to personal protection equipment (PPE) residues that are more likely in contact with the virus. Rather the dramatic increase in disposal of such single-use plastics poses a potential threat to the environment. Such impacts in global plastic pollution are essentially unknown. Thus, the environmental research community needs to move fast to understand and mitigate these risks.”