What is Coronavirus Face masks longer term environmental impact?

Posted By Lobitech Solutions Lobitech on 12-12-2020 19:34:06

What is Coronavirus Face masks longer term environmental impact?

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Coronavirus facemasks: a longer-term environmental impact than the pandemic itself?


With facemasks becoming a legal requirement in many parts of the world we are now using more than we ever have before. Therefore it is surprising to see very little information about how to correctly dispose of them.

Just by sheer volume the environmental impact could be devastating to ecosystems around the world. A study by University College London estimates that the number of facemasks in the UK has increased to 24.7 billion per year as a result of the Coronavirus. However this drops to 136 million if only reusable facemasks are used.

The marine conservation organisation OceansAsia estimates that by the end of 2020 1.5 billion facemasks will be polluting the world’s oceans and effects will also be seen on land.

Why are facemasks so harmful?


Facemasks cannot be recycled as they are considered medical waste; some studies show that bacteria can live on them for up to 7 days. Therefore they will most likely end up in landfill or incinerated when correctly disposed of. So the best form of disposal is already harmful to the environment.

The majority of facemasks are manufactured from fabrics containing the plastic polypropylene. This can take 20-30 years to decompose fully in landfill. And when incinerated the burning of thermoplastics such as polypropylene releases dioxins and vinyl chloride into the atmosphere.

According to Waste Free Oceans single-use facemasks could take up to 450 years to fully decompose and leave the marine ecosystem. The polluting of the world’s oceans due to plastic waste will be a long-term issue lasting centuries. In addition to the long degradation time it also releases toxic chemicals during the process including lead and cadmium. Studies show that cadmium has the potential to be extremely harmful to a number of bio-systems. As plastics break down into smaller molecules and fibres they can infiltrate food chains, with the potential to reach humans.

Animals on land and in the ocean can become entangled in incorrectly disposed plastics. We already see this happen with previously problematic plastic disposal however it has already become an issue with facemasks. In Chelmsford, Essex, a seagull was found by the RSPCA with both legs entangled in the elastic of a single-use facemask.

Preventing this situation from reoccurring is largely helped by cutting the elastic strings on facemasks when disposing of them, even if you are disposing of them correctly. And some animals cannot tell the difference between plastics littering the oceans and prey resulting in choking or malnourishment.

What can we do?


The environmental impact of facemasks increases as the number of facemasks used increases. Therefore the main focus should be reducing the number of facemasks we use.

Using reusable facemasks drastically decreases the overall environmental impact. According to University College London out of all reusable facemask options machine washing reusable facemasks without filters has the least environmental impact. Facemasks that use disposable filters increase the environmental impact because they are made from similar materials to single-use facemasks.

With the threat of Coronavirus continuing it is unlikely that we will stop needing facemasks any time soon. So here are some steps to reduce their environmental impact:

  1. Use reusable facemasks without filters and machine wash them.
  2. Cut the strings on all facemasks when disposing of them to reduce the chance of animals getting tangled in them.
  3. Most facemasks cannot be recycled. They can get caught in equipment and are a potential biohazard as bacteria can live on them for up to 7 days.
  4. Don’t littler them; dispose of them in a bin.

Article Author Ellen Glover 

Tags: nhs dentist coronavirus, facemasks, coronavirus, pandemic, ellen glover

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