The worldwide outbreak of novel coronavirus disease of 2019 (COVID-19) prompted many to purchase face masks for protection, even though public officials are not recommending them for the general population. When not properly disposed, these protective masks are  harmful to the environment.

The masks are made of the plastic polypropylene, which is not easily biodegradable. The accumulation of discarded face masks litters the environment and poses serious risks to habitats and to the health of wildlife, especially marine organisms. Marine plastic pollution is already a serious problem. It is estimated that every year, over eight million tonnes of plastic enter oceans. This plastic does not disappear but rather slowly breaks down into micro-plastic, which enters food chains and has a devastating effect.

According to a recent Reuters report from Hong Kong, discarded face masks are piling up on Hong Kong’s beaches and nature trails. Environmental groups are warning that the waste is posing a serious threat to marine life and wildlife habitats. According to Teale Phelps Bondaroff, director of research at OceansAsia, “A mask that is ingested by a local turtle, pink dolphin or finless porpoise, for example, could easily become stuck in the digestive system of this animal, thereby killing it.”

In Canada, public health officials, including Theresa Tham, chief public health officer of Canada, have said there is no proven need for those in Canada to wear face masks amid the outbreak.

“Wearing masks when you’re well is not an effective measure. Sometimes it can actually present some risks, as you’re putting your fingers up and down on your face, removing your mask, putting them next to your eyes,” Tam said at a recent media briefing. She explained that masks are more useful for people who are confirmed to be sick.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines for preventing and treating the infection do not recommend masks for the general population. The CDC does not recommend that healthy people wear medical masks to protect themselves from respiratory diseases, including coronavirus. It advises that people who show COVID-19 symptoms should wear masks to help prevent the spread of the disease. The CDC also warns that medical masks are “crucial” for health workers and people who are taking care of someone at home or in a health care facility.

Despite this advice, masks are selling out in stores and online.

“We only have had masks for the last six to eight weeks, in a massive volume…we are now seeing the effect on the environment,” explained Gary Stokes, founder of Oceans Asia, a marine conservation organization. For example, added Stokes, of the Soko Islands off Hong Kong on one 100-meter stretch of beach, he discovered 70 masks, then an additional 30 the following week.

Hong Kong’s dense population means that its citizens have struggled with single-use plastic waste. “Nobody wants to go to the forest and find masks littered everywhere or used masks on the beaches. It is unhygienic and dangerous,” says Laurence McCook, head of Oceans Conservation at the World Wildlife Fund in Hong Kong.

The WWF video “A Problem of Oceanic Proportions”:


For further information on proper mask use and disposal in Canada, click here.

Featured image from Export Development Canada.

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