Sydney-based organization Clean Up Australia (CUA) put forward this claim in time for the launch of its citizen science project on March 6. The endeavor aims to measure the extent of plastic waste in the Land Down Under by tallying the number of discarded face masks participants find.
CUA Chairwoman Pip Kiernan said there are currently no statistical studies about the impact of improperly disposed surgical masks. “Our environmental issues haven’t gone away because of COVID-19. In fact, they’ve escalated because of the mountain of rubbish that’s been created. Disposable masks don’t belong in the environment,” she said.
Kiernan added that the plastic used to create disposable masks can take up to 450 years to degrade. Furthermore, researchers have warned that these masks could be releasing chemical pollutants and nano-plastics into the environment. There have also been reports of seabirds and other animals being tangled up in these single-use masks.
According to CUA, single-use surgical masks are made using a variety of plastics that make them unsuitable for conventional recycling. Up to 3.4 billion masks were thrown out every single day for the entirety of the year 2020 alone. The group recommended that individuals remove the elastic ear loops from the masks before disposing them in the trash. (Related: Disposable face masks, PPE contributing to worsening global plastic pollution problem, warn environmentalists.)
The CUA chairwoman, whose father Ian Kiernan established the group in 1989, said the next generation of personal protective equipment (PPE) such as masks should consider two factors in their design. They should not only keep safety in mind, but also the environmental footprint.
“Urgency is required to be more creative in the design of these products with the environment right up there in our thinking. We need innovation in the design of PPE so that it’s as safe as it can be, but kinder on the environment.”
Other groups already sounding the alarm on COVID waste
CUA is the latest organization to call attention to the worsening problem of PPE waste. Back in 2020, French non-profit Operation Mer Propre (OMP) pointed out the issue of so-called “COVID waste.”
Laurent Lombard, one of OMP’s founders, posted footage of one of their cleanup dives in the sea near the southeastern coastal city of Antibes. Masks entangled in algae and soiled gloves featured prominently in the video. “Soon, we’ll run the risk of having more masks than jellyfish in the Mediterranean [Sea],” Lombard wrote in an accompanying post.
OMP’s Joffrey Peltier, meanwhile, defined “COVID waste” as gloves, face masks and hand sanitizer bottles that mix in with the usual trash found in the sea. While the number of masks and gloves found was far from enormous, he warned that this could be the norm soon. “It’s the promise of pollution to come if nothing is done. With all the alternatives, plastic isn’t the solution to protect us from COVID-19,” said Peltier.
Aside from the Australian and French groups, others around the world have sounded the alarm on the matter – including GEA Sustainability ESCP. The group consists of students at the ESCP Business School across its six campuses in Europe, and has its home base in the ESCP campus at the French capital Paris.
Back in January 2021, GEA Sustainability ESCP hosted an online event titled “More Masks Than Jellyfish.” The event sought to discuss the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on marine life, in particular tackling ocean pollution caused by PPE waste such as face masks and protective coveralls.
Guest speakers at the event included Federico Morisio, a professional windsurfer and brand ambassador for Italian environmental group Marevivo, and the organization’s digital communication specialist Mariagiovanna Giuliano. “There is a strong connection between the health of our seas and ours. If the seas are not healthy, we cannot live a healthy life on this planet,” the two said.
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