Litter caused by face masks increased 9,000% since March 2021, study says

From March to October 2020, the amount of disposable face masks that were littered across the globe increased by nearly 9,000 percent.

The finding was published in a study in Nature Sustainability, which used an app to track the rise of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) pollution throughout the first 14 months of the coronavirus pandemic in 11 countries around the world.

The study also added that an increase in PPE pollution consistently followed an increase in national mask mandates and mask recommendations from the World Health Organization.

“We found that littered masks had an exponential increase from March 2020, resulting in a more than 80-fold increase by October 2020,” said lead researcher Dr. Keiron Roberts.

Roberts is also a Lecturer in Sustainability and the Built Environment at the University of Portsmouth. “There is a clear need to ensure that requiring the use of these items is accompanied with education campaigns to limit their release into the environment.”

The study is the newest that has added the emergence of PPE pollution as something to be analyzed, particularly referencing face masks as a new type of litter.

An earlier study released in November showed that there are now nearly 29,000 tons of COVID-19 related plastic floating in the ocean.

Professor Steve Fletcher, director of Revolution Plastics at the University of Portsmouth, responded to the study in which he did not participate by saying, “Despite millions of people being told to use face masks, little guidance was given on how to dispose of them or recycle them safely.”

He added, “Without better disposal practices, an environmental disaster is looming. The majority of masks are manufactured from long-lasting plastic materials, and if discarded can persist in the environment or decades to hundreds of years. This means they can have a number of impacts on the environment and people.”

The UK government has agreed on the importance of properly disposing face masks in response to the findings. 

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