California sea lion (Zalophus californianus) playing wiht KN95 mask in Monterey, CA. Ralph Pace
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How to stop discarded face masks from polluting the planet

You’re out for your daily jogging. You see a face mask on the ground. No one would want to touch what has shielded someone’s potentially virus-laden breath. So there it lies until it blows away towards the water or waiting to get picked by a squirrel and that single problem is rapidly changing the landscape around the world.

Throughout the past year, face masks have become one of the most prominent symbols of the coronavirus pandemic, both on our faces and, according to experts, in pollution scattered across the planet’s beaches, streets and bodies of water. OceansAsia, a nonprofit marine conservation advocacy organization, recently conducted research about how many single-use face masks are likely to have entered the world’s oceans in 2020. Overall, the organization estimates that more than 1.5 billion face masks entered oceans in 2020, resulting in an additional 4,680 to 6,240 metric tons (about 5,160 to 6,880 U.S. tons) of marine plastic pollution.

It’s crucial to learn how to properly discard face masks in order to ensure they don’t end up in oceans, lakes and rivers, so what can you do to help?

Why are single-use masks bad for the environment?

Face masks are often disposed of, even washable ones. Unfortunately, this presents a huge environmental problem. Single-use masks are made of lightweight non-woven polypropylene, polycarbonate, polyester, or polyethylene material. While they keep pathogens out, these materials are plastic-based. And as we all know, plastics are non-biodegradable, making their disposal a huge global issue.

Recent disposal and recycling statistics show that face masks have become the new “plastic bottles.” According to an estimate by Green Matters, over 129 billion face masks are thrown every month we deal with the coronavirus. That’s a massive amount that goes to our oceans, which are already oversaturated with plastic waste. Marine animals mistake these masks for food, which leads to entanglement, ingestion, choking, and death.

Masks can also break down to microplastic fibers. When these fish are harvested and prepared for human consumption, those microplastics that they ingested can pass through our bodies, which could have detrimental effects on our health.

Can you put disposable masks in the recycling bin?

No. It’s really important that these end up in the right spot, which is not in the recycling bin — it’s in your general waste bin. We know a lot of them are ending up in the environment, and it’s an important reminder to dispose of them properly.

It sounds so obvious: don’t drop them, don’t litter.

If you or someone from your household may have coronavirus (COVID-19), put disposable items in a sealed plastic or paper bag, and then in your bin.

Why it’s important to ‘snip the straps’

Most masks have straps made of rubber or similar materials, which can cause problems for wildlife.

It’s important to snip the straps before you dispose them, because if [the masks] do end up in the environment, [the straps] can entangle wildlife and cause problems.

Water birds and marine life are especially vulnerable.

The thing to remember is that everything you drop by the roadside is likely to end up in a waterway. Most waste ends up in a waterway.

More sustainable mask options

Reusable masks made from fabric are more environmentally friendly than single-use masks, but they may not provide the same protection.

If you’re buying a fabric mask, make sure it has at least three layers and properly covers your nose and mouth.

If you’re comfortable around a sewing machine, you can try making one yourself.

Maybe our habits have changed, and when we’re on public transport we’ll continue to use masks from time to time. It’s an investment that you will keep using,

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