Over the past year, you’ve probably seen medical masks thrown away on the sidewalk, in the parking lot or even in an apartment emergency exit. But that’s not the only place they come in.
Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, our oceans are being poisoned by more than 1.56 billion disposable medical masks, according to a new study by the Ocean-Asia Conservation Group. In some seas like the Mediterranean, masks can be found more often than jellyfish.
“There is a common misconception that medical masks are made from fabric,” said Andrew Wunderley, an environmental activist from the Charleston Waterkeeper organization. But they’re actually made of plastic. It will take up to 450 years for the masks to decompose.
During that time, research by Ocean-Asia estimated that the production of masks produced worldwide could reach more than 52 billion pieces per year. If calculated on a loss rate of about 3% and each medical mask contains 3-4 grams of polypropylene plastic, since the beginning of the epidemic COVID-19 until now, humans have added to the ocean from 4,680-6,240. tons of plastic.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg, says Teale Phelps Bondaroff, director of research at Ocean-Asia. “Every year, humans are dumping 8-12 million tons of plastic into the ocean. They have been and will cause terrible damage to the wildlife populations living in the oceans.”
“Plastic pollution kills around 100,000 marine mammals and turtles, more than a million seabirds and an endless number of fish, invertebrates and other marine life each year.“, Said Gary Stokes, an environmental expert and chief executive officer of Ocean-Asia.
“It also has a negative impact on the fisheries and tourism industry, causing an estimated $ 13 billion in annual damage to the global economy.
At the end of the food chain, plastic pollution in the oceans also harms human health. Consider a scenario where plastic breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces, known as microplastics. Marine organisms ingest microplastics, and toxins from the plastic pass into their flesh and organs, and then into humans when we eat seafood.
Research done in Europe shows that when eating a serving of seafood, shellfish dishes such as clams, oysters, clams …, you can swallow 90 microplastics in the belly. This amount may vary from country to country, but the average person who eats seafood, with shellfish dishes, may ingest 11,000 microplastics each year.
The main ingredient of disposable respirators is polypropylene, a fossil fuel-derived plastic that cannot be recycled. The reason is that they are manufactured for a specific environment in the hospital, made from plastic fibers that are difficult to separate, difficult to classify and clean.
Therefore, the Ocean-Asia report encourages people to switch to fabric masks that can be reused many times instead of medical masks. Gary Stokes says that is how we can protect our planet, because even if you throw a mask in the trash, its fate can end in the oceans.
The masks can fly with the wind, be carried by someone to the ocean or fall off a boat, Stokes said. “On a beach about 100 meters long, we found about 70 masks. A week later, another 30 masks were picked up. And it was on a deserted island in the middle of the sea“, he said.
Curious to see how far the masks have gone, Stokes begins to check out other nearby beaches. “We find them everywhere. Since society started wearing masks, the resulting consequences are being seen all over the beach.
And the problem doesn’t just happen with disposable medical masks. Other protective gear and medical waste are also causing problems in the oceans.
“Gloves are a good example and they are particularly harmful. The rubber gloves look a lot like a jellyfish, which means fish may accidentally ingest them, turtles and other marine life.“, Wunderly said.
The same thing could happen with the masks, Stoke said. In some seas like the Mediterranean, the number of masks can be more than jellyfish.
“During our research, we occasionally came across dolphins that died and were washed ashore.“Stoke said.”And when doing autopsy for autopsy, what we would normally find in their stomachs were masks. “