In many public spaces around the world, it is now a legal requirement to wear medical face masks in order to contain the spread of the Coronavirus and to keep the risk of infection low. While people use masks to protect themselves from the virus, they pose a major problem for the environment – especially if they are not disposed of correctly and end up on the streets or in the rivers that ultimately carry them to the sea. In a recent study published in the journal Nature Sustainability, British researchers from the University of Portsmouth examined this problem more closely.
The focus of the study, which was carried out in eleven countries, was the question of the amount of carelessly disposed medical masks or other protective equipment caused by the corona measures taken by governments. To this end, the research team analyzed data from publicly accessible databases and looked at the period between September 2019 and the first month with Covid-19. The team examined eleven countries more closely, including Great Britain, Germany, France, Australia, Spain, and Sweden.
What the researchers discovered was a huge increase in the amount of waste generated by carelessly discarded masks and other protective equipment: The number of masks that were not properly disposed of rose 84 times from the start of the pandemic in March 2020 until October 2021. In a country comparison, Great Britain performed worst, with just under six percent the country accounted for the largest share of all carelessly thrown away waste. In countries like Australia and New Zealand, that proportion was below 0.2%, as there were fewer restrictions in those countries to combat the pandemic.
What surprised the researchers was that the garbage problem slowly increased during the stricter lockdowns in spring 2020. However, it got bigger when more travel and social activities were possible again in summer and autumn, while in many countries the mask requirement continued to apply.
Masks increase the risk of infection and flood of plastic
Incorrectly disposing of masks has some negative effects on people and the environment. In the first hours and days, discarded masks or sanitary wipes are a potential carrier of Covid-19 if they are used by an infected person, according to the investigation. Discarded objects represent visual pollution that can cause further waste in the area concerned – according to the study, people tend to throw masks carelessly on the street if it is already heavily soiled.
The waste also contributes to the existing plastic problem, according to the researchers in an article in the specialist journal The Conversation. The masks are mostly made of durable plastic that can stay in the environment for centuries. Animals can choke on large remains of masks, for example, or the microplastics that slowly decay can end up in the soil and water and ultimately into the human food chain.
Researchers recommend measures
According to the study, it can be assumed that the use of masks will remain at a high level in 2022 and that masks will continue to be littered with masks. In order to combat the protective equipment waste, local and national measures are necessary, according to the researchers. For example, they propose to adopt the legislation, to make manufacturers more responsible for improving the infrastructure for waste management, but also to carry out targeted awareness-raising campaigns.
According to the researchers, future measures should also aim to promote the use of reusable items, facilitate the collection and disposal of single-use items in places where their use is mandatory, and support the waste disposal infrastructure in the recovery and subsequent disposal of the material.