It is estimated that the world uses 129 billion disposable masks every month.
With a lifespan of around 450 years, environmental researchers are concerned about an ecological timebomb.
According to the United Nations, a staggering 75% of face masks end up in landfill or waterways.
Face masks have been mandated by most governments at one time or another during the Covid pandemic. Masks are currently compulsory for most activities in NSW and Victoria for the duration of the current lockdowns, with health officials directing people to change them regularly during use.
It was estimated in an article by the National Centre for Biotechnology Information that the daily generation of used face masks during the first wave and second wave of the pandemic in Victoria was between 104 and 160 tons.
The same article goes on to warn that the Melbourne experienced a 70% rise in illegally dumped waste, including PPE, during the first lockdown separate to the additional Covid related waste.
Mandating mask wearing for most of the world’s 9 billion people has created an extraordinary amount of dangerous excess plastic which has been killing marine life.
Despite the compulsory health mandates, there has been little control over the disposal of PPE despite studies showing that Covid can live on the mask for up to a week.
‘Disposable masks are made of polypropylene (PP) and high-density polyethylene (HDPE) used in the production of non-woven fabrics using a melt-blown process.’ - from Disposable over Reusable Face Masks: Public Safety or Environmental Disaster?
Concerns over environmental damage led to many people using reusable fabric masks instead of mass-produced PPE which is made primarily in China.
However, with the rise of highly transmissible Covid variants like the Delta strain, governments in some countries have begun to restrict the use of reusable masks in public places over concerns that most do not have a high enough filtration efficiency. This policy decision to protect public health has accelerated the waste problem.
While hospitals provide hazardous waste disposal for Covid masks, the general population has been throwing them in the bin or straight onto the ground.
Over a 1000 face masks washed up on Lord Howe Island while the waters of the Mediterranean have reported masks floating like a smack of jellyfish with the seabed choked by latex gloves and bottles of hand sanitiser.
“With all the alternatives, plastic isn’t the solution to protect us from Covid. That’s the message,” said Joffrey Peltier, from Opération Mer Propre.
There is some hope. A new road base material has been explored as a possible solution to recycling face masks by researchers at RMIT University in Melbourne.
The study, which is published in the Science of the Total Environment journal, is one of the first to test the waters of civil applications for the global waste nightmare. It claims that 'each kilometre of road will save 93 tonnes of waste entering landfills'.
“This initial study looked at the feasibility of recycling single-use face masks into roads and we were thrilled to find it not only works, but also delivers real engineering benefits,” Dr Mohammad Saberian said. “We hope this opens the door for further research, to work through ways of managing health and safety risks at scale and investigate whether other types of PPE would also be suitable for recycling.”
Various state premiers, including the NSW Minister for Energy and the Environment Matt Kean, have unveiled recent plans to cut most single use plastics by 2025.
While single use plastic bags in supermarkets have already been banned, at least two premiers have announced a further ban of disposable coffee cups, take away cutlery, straws, stirrers, cotton buds and polystyrene packing in the next 12 months after legislation was successfully passed.
Face masks, gloves, and bottle of hand sanitiser are not on the list of banned items despite playing an arguably more significant role in Australia’s plastic waste problem.
Leaders remain largely silent on the impact of Covid-related waste and the impact it has had on the nation’s green targets.
The Victorian Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) has suggested that the ear loops of masks should be cut before being thrown in the rubbish to stop wildlife becoming tangled.