By protecting our health, we harm the well-being of the environment and vice versa, a cycle that we should break with good environmental education. Those products known as surgical masks, face masks, chinstraps or nasobucos, have become one of the most polluting wastes during this current period of health emergency due to Coronavirus, especially the disposable ones.
Recent joint university research estimated that we wear a staggering 130 billion surgical masks each month, worldwide, or 3 million per minute, and most are made from plastic microfibers.
Researchers from the University of Southern Denmark and Princeton University state that masks are an environmental hazard in ecological terms, as there are no guidelines for recycling surgical masks.
While environmental scientists in a comment in the scientific journal Frontiers of Environmental Science & Engineering, warn that: “With the increase in reports about the inappropriate disposal of face masks, it is urgent to recognize this possible environmental threat and prevent it from becoming the next plastic problem”.
Disposable masks are plastic products that cannot easily biodegrade. In addition, in the long term, they can fragment into smaller plastic particles, such as micro and nanoplastics, a situation that would allow them to spread through ecosystems and contaminate more.
Disposable face masks vs plastic bottles
The enormous production of masks has surpassed that of plastic bottles, since it is estimated that these are around 43 billion per month. On the other hand, unlike plastic bottles of which about 25% are recycled, there is no official guide to recycling masks, which makes it more likely that they will be disposed of as solid waste.
Like various types of plastic bags, if masks are not disposed of for recycling, like other plastic waste they can end up in the environment, in freshwater systems, and the oceans, where the elements can degrade them to a great extent. amount of microscopic-sized particles, and months later, those same particles fragment, even more, to give way to nano plastics of less than 1 micrometer.
A noxious ‘pollution bomb’
“A big concern is that masks are made of micro-sized plastic fibers (~ 1 to 10 microns thick), so when it breaks down in the environment, it can release more microscopic-sized plastics, easier and faster than bulk plastics, such as plastic bags, “the researchers noted.
“We know that, like other plastic waste, disposable masks can also accumulate and release harmful chemical and biological substances, such as bisphenol A, heavy metals, as well as pathogenic microorganisms. That have indirect adverse effects on plants, animals, and humans” said Elvis Genbo Xu, a scientist at the University of Southern Denmark.