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Why single-use face masks are polluting global environment – An ‘estimated 1.56 billion face masks entered our ocean in 2020

7News Health Reporter Victoria Sanchez began documenting discarded personal protective equipment (PPE) in early 2020. Face masks, rubber gloves, and sanitizing wipes are lightweight and would blow across parking lots, get stuck in trees and end up in storm drains.

Conservation and wildlife activist group OceansAsia is known to collect and document plastic trash around the globe. In February 2020, dozens of masks started washing up on beaches. Just two months later, the organization collected 135 masks in less than an hour on Soko Island in Hong Kong.

“It’s a new form of plastic pollution that we weren’t seeing before COVID, and now we’re seeing it flooding our beaches,” said Dr. Teale Phelps Bondaroff, director of research at OceansAsia.

ALSO READ: Discarded masks litter beaches worldwide, threaten sea life

Phelps Bondaroff spoke with Sanchez in a Zoom interview from Victoria, British Columbia.

“We did a study that estimated that 1.56 billion face masks entered our ocean in 2020,” he said.

“Here I am thinking that my grocery store parking lot is dirty and really, this is such a bigger issue,” Sanchez said.

Across the Atlantic Ocean, the mask trash began piling up too.

“Both in Denmark and U.S., both of us see a lot of those single-use masks on the street, on the rivers, in the oceans,” said Dr. Elvis Xu, assistant professor of biology at the University of Southern Denmark.

Dr. Xu and Dr. Jason Ren, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Princeton, co-wrote a research paper about the “next plastic problem”.

“The single-use, disposable medical mask is three layers of plastics. It can actually degrade very fast in the environment to smaller and smaller pieces. We call it micro-plastic and it is an even bigger problem than the intact mask itself as an environmental pollutant,” explained Dr. Xu.

The micro-plastics can break down within 24 hours. Those particles can get ingested by animals that humans end up eating.