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News article highlighting the increase in face mask use and the occurrence of littering. This piece continues the discussion highlighting the environmental issues that can arise from this novel litter. Article available here:
15/08/2020, 15)59Coronavirus face masks: an environmental disaster that might last generations
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Keiron Philip Roberts
Research Fellow in Clean Carbon
Technologies and Resource Management,
University of Portsmouth
Academic rigour, journalistic flair
Face coverings are now a legal requirement in many public spaces around the
world. But even before they became compulsory, masks were causing litter
problems on land and at sea.
One February beach clean in Hong Kong found 70 masks along 100 metres of
shoreline, with 30 more appearing a week later. In the Mediterranean, masks have
reportedly been seen floating like jellyfish.
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Chris Redan/Shutterstock
Coronavirus face masks: an environmental disaster that
might last generations
August 14, 2020 4.11pm BST
15/08/2020, 15)59Coronavirus face masks: an environmental disaster that might last generations
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Cressida Bowyer
Senior Research Fellow in the Faculty of
Creative and Cultural Industries, University
of Portsmouth
Simon Kolstoe
Senior Lecturer in Evidence Based
Healthcare and University Ethics Advisor,
University of Portsmouth
Steve Fletcher
Professor of Ocean Policy and Economy,
University of Portsmouth
Despite millions of people being told to use face masks, little guidance has been
given on how to dispose of or recycle them safely. And as countries begin to lift
lockdown restrictions, billions of masks will be needed each month globally.
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 for decades to hundreds of years. This
means they can have a number of impacts on the environment and people.
Hazardous to people and animals
Initially, discarded masks may risk spreading coronavirus to waste collectors, litter
pickers or members of the public who first come across the litter. We know that in
certain conditions, the virus can survive on a plastic surgical mask for seven days.
Masks aren’t the only problem – other items of PPE, such as gloves, are also being discarded in high numbers.
15/08/2020, 15)59Coronavirus face masks: an environmental disaster that might last generations
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Over the medium to long term, animals and plants are also affected. Through its sheer mass, plastic
waste can smother environments and break up ecosystems. Some animals also cannot tell the difference
between plastic items and their prey, subsequently choking on pieces of litter.
Even if they do not choke, animals can become malnourished as the materials fill up their stomachs but
provide no nutrients. Smaller animals may also become entangled in the elastic within the masks or
within gloves as they begin to break apart.
Plastics break down into smaller pieces over time, and the longer litter is in the environment, the more it
will decompose. Plastics first break down into microplastics and eventually into even smaller
nanoplastics. These tiny particles and fibres are often long-lived polymers that can accumulate in food
chains. Just one mask can produce millions of particles, each with the potential to also carry chemicals
and bacteria up the food chain and potentially even into humans.
Littered areas also tend to encourage further littering, making the problem worse.
What you should do
In March, the World Health Organization estimated that 89 million additional disposable masks were
Discarded face masks may be mistaken by sea creatures for prey and eaten. Stely Nikolova
15/08/2020, 15)59Coronavirus face masks: an environmental disaster that might last generations
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needed globally per month in medical settings to combat COVID-19. In addition, a recent working paper
by the Plastic Waste Innovation Hub at University College London has put the current domestic demand
for the UK at 24.7 billion masks a year. However, the demand for domestic face masks in the UK drops
dramatically – to around 136 million a year – if only reusable masks are used.
But even with reusable masks, their specific design and how you choose to clean them makes a
difference. The University College London team examined the manufacture, use and disposal of masks
that were disposable, reusable, and reusable with disposable filters, to calculate their overall
environmental impact. They found machine washing reusable masks with no filters had the lowest
impact over a year.
Hand washing masks increased the environmental impact as – while machine washing uses electricity –
manual washing uses more water and detergent for each mask. Disposable filters also increase the
environmental impact because the small filters are often made from plastic similar to the disposable
masks, with a filter discarded after every use.
Perhaps surprisingly, the working paper estimates that hand washing reusable masks with disposable
filters had the highest environmental impact overall – higher even than using fully disposable masks.
With all of this in mind, we should take these steps to reduce the impact of wearing a face mask:
As well as having a lower environmental impact, reusable masks are often a lot more fashionable too. Maria
15/08/2020, 15)59Coronavirus face masks: an environmental disaster that might last generations
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Coronavirus Litter Microplastics Face masks Marine litter COVID-19 PPE Coronavirus insights
1. Use reusable masks without disposable filters. Machine wash them regularly following the
instructions for the fabric.
2. Try to carry a spare so if something goes wrong with the one you’re wearing you don’t need to use or
buy a disposable mask.
3. If you do need to use a disposable mask, take it home (maybe in a bag if you have to take it off) and
then put it straight into a bin with a lid. If this isn’t possible, place it in a proper public bin.
4. Don’t put disposable masks in the recycling. They can get caught in specialist recycling equipment
and be a potential biohazard to waste workers.
5. Whatever you do, don’t litter them!
... Throughout the initial stages of the pandemic (February to May 2020), anecdotal reports emerged of increased littering of masks and personal cleaning products such as wipes (for example, disinfectant wipes/wet wipes) and gloves 4,9,[15][16][17] . Restrictions on movements across the globe (lockdowns) presented challenges for scientists in quantifying the reported environmental impacts of COVID-19-related litter including the potential impact of policies. ...
... As of October 2020, most countries had a level 2 response in place except for Sweden, Australia and New Zealand. The different levels of governmental response, in turn, had unintended consequences in relation to litter composition as has been widely reported 15 . ...
Full-text available
Use of personal protective equipment (PPE) increased during the COVID-19 pandemic to reduce virus transmission. Here, we quantitatively analyse emergence of PPE and COVID-19-related litter over 14 months for 11 countries using the litter collection application Litterati. The proportion of masks in litter increased by >80-fold as a result of COVID-19 legislation, from <0.01% to >0.8%. Gloves and wipes, more prevalent at ~0.2% of litter before the pandemic, doubled to 0.4%, but this has since fallen. Glove litter increased in the initial stages of the pandemic but fell after the introduction of facemask policies, whereupon there was an increase of facemask litter. National COVID-19 policy responses and international World Health Organization announcements and recommendations are a probable driver of PPE litter dynamics, especially the implementation of facemask policies. Waste management should be incorporated in designing future pandemic policies to avoid negative environmental legacies of mismanaged PPE.
... In light of the ongoing pandemic COVID À19, the widespread practice of using personal and medical protective and safety items, including latex gloves, disposable face masks, and hand sanitizers, has contributed to the worsening of an already catastrophic environmental contamination [16,17]. Divers have found that such pandemic waste is currently floating beneath the ocean surface [18]. ...
... Rarely are they disposed off properly with safety. Few researchers have questioned the use of disposable face masks over reusable ones (Allison et al., 2021;Chowdhury et al., 2021;Do Thi, el al., 2021;Prata et al., 2021) and the scale and duration of disaster as a microplastic, chemical and biological source of pollution that they pose to the environment (Ammendolia et al., 2021;Amuah et al., 2021;Anastopoulos and Pashalidis, 2021;Mawkhlieng and Majumdar, 2021;Roberts, et al., 2020;Saliu et al., 2021;Shetty et al., 2020;Shiferie, 2021;Sullivan et al., 2021;Xu and Ren, 2021). Other researchers have worked in the direction of utilization of disposable face masks in high-solids anaerobic digestion (de Albuquerque et al., 2021), as a precursor for synthesis of valuable bioproducts (Oginni, 2021) and for enhanced bio-oil recovery from disposed face masks through cohydrothermal liquefaction with Spirulina platensis grown in wastewater (Li et al., 2021). ...
The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has not only burdened the health sector but also caused a plethora of environmental problems including the volume of waste generated from the personal protective equipment (PPE) kits including single use face masks which are now being used and disposed off by billions of people worldwide daily. These are not readily biodegradable as some of them may take up to 450 years to fully decompose as per estimates and after use their safe disposal becomes an issue especially in a country like India where the general awareness among masses regarding it is scarce and there is already an overload of solid waste management issues. Apart from the enormity of the size of the waste, there are high levels of pollutants, including lead, antimony, and copper, within the silicon-based and plastic fibers of common disposable face masks; which when disposed off incorrectly can persist in the environment for a very long duration and can be lethal for some life forms including marine life. This paper is intended to study this particular problem and suggest some measures to counter it. The methodology adopted here is twofold. Firstly, an extensive literature review has been done on the topic to understand the gravity of the situation and identify the research gaps and secondly personal interviews were done with some experts of related fields like doctors, environmental epidemiologists, waste management specialists, researchers, academicians specializing in the subject, bureaucrats involved in the COVID-19 relief work, etc. Based upon the analysis of the results of the literature review and the personal interviews, some recommendations have been suggested to tackle the problem. It is expected that the paper would help the various stakeholders in developing not only new techniques for tackling this problem but also in evolving innovative policies as a way ahead out of this pandemic.
... Consequently, the production and manufacturing of these goods have exploded worldwide [3][4][5][6]. Hand gloves, single-use face masks, syringes, eye safety goggles, and disinfectant bottles are some items that divers have lately found floating in the water [7]. Using syringes for COVID-19 vaccinations is inevitable, but they have significant effects on the natural environment. ...
Full-text available
Plastic waste causes severe environmental impacts worldwide and threatens the lives of all creatures. In the medical field, most of the equipment, especially personal protective equipment (PPE), is made from single-use plastic. During COVID-19, the usage of PPE has increased, and is disposed of in landfills after being used once. Worldwide, millions of tons of waste syringes are generated from COVID-19 vaccination. A practical alternative to utilizing this waste is recycling it to reinforce building materials. This research introduces an approach to using COVID-19 syringe plastic waste to reinforce building material as composite concrete. Reinforced fiber polymer (FRP) concrete materials were used to mold cylindrical specimens, which underwent mechanical tests for mechanical properties. This study used four compositions with 0%, 5%, 10%, and 15% of FRP to create cylindrical samples for optimum results. Sequential mechanical tests were carried out on the created samples. These specimens were cured for a long period to obtain water absorption capability. After several investigations, the highest tensile and compressive strengths, approximately 2.0 MPa and 10.5 MPa, were found for the 5% FRP composition samples. From the curing test, the lowest water absorbability of around 5% was found for the 5% FRP composition samples.
... Polypropylene, the principal plastic used in disposable masks, takes more than 25 years to decompose. As a result, when disposable masks wind up in our waterways, they break into microscopic plastic bits called "microplastics" [4]. The global epidemic has affected our economy and will continue to do so when it ends. ...
Full-text available
The coronavirus causing the Covid-19 pandemic has been experienced by us since 2020, which has led to an increase in the use of disposable medical masks in Indonesia and even worldwide. Polypropylene is a thermoplastic polymer used as the main ingredient in medical masks that takes more than 25 years to decompose in landfills. This research offers an innovative way to use medical mask waste in high-performance concrete. The resulting medical mask waste is subjected to a sterilization process and cut into fibers to analyze the effect of its addition on the compressive strength and splitting tensile strength of high-performance concrete. The research began with testing the physical and mechanical properties of the materials, designing a concrete mix using the absolute volume method, and taking samples for compression and splitting tests. The variation in the ratio of water-cement and pozzolanic materials w/(c+p) is 0.32. As a result, the compressive strength of concrete increased with a fiber size of 5×0.5 cm and 2×0.5 cm. An increase is up to 7 % with an optimum value of 72.37 MPa with a fiber size of 2×0.5 cm and a content of 0.15 %. However, there was a decrease in the compressive strength with a 5×1 cm mask fiber size. The overall split tensile strength value of all variations in waste fiber size and content increased with an optimum value of 7.29 MPa at 0.20 % fiber content with a fiber size of 5×0.5 cm. This indicates that polypropylene fibers from medical mask waste have a positive effect on high-performance concrete, namely improve the properties of concrete with a low tensile strength, which is expected to inhibit the propagation and reduce the size of cracks in reinforced concrete structures
... The experts also advise washing the reusable mask at above 60 degrees centigrade to kill any virus particles in non-medical circumstances (Emily Chan 2020; UNE 2020; AFNOR 2020). Other studies report that machine washing of the reusable mask is the better way to control the environmental impacts (in terms of carbon footprint and chemical release to sewage and marine) (Roberts et al. 2020). Figure 2 represents the distribution of various COVID-19 related PPE items (Fig. 2a) and mask types (Fig. 2b) as reported in the literature. ...
Full-text available
Coronavirus Pandemic is the current biggest challenge against humanity. Apart from the personal health issues and higher mortality by the coronavirus, recent research works have also reported the environmental impacts of the pandemic. The review aims to analyze the current status of face masks and personal protective equipment littering and subsequent environmental impact in terms of microplastic and microfiber pollution. Recent researches in this domain are collected from the leading databases with relevant keywords and critically analyzed. The review results report a multi-fold increment in the usage of personal protective equipment, particularly face masks after the pandemic. Mismanagement of these items leads them to reach the marine environment through a variety of transportation. The results show a significant amount of increment in plastic and pandemic-related littering after the pandemic. The systematic review shows that the use of synthetic fibers in disposable personal protective equipment and masks leads to release of fibers that can add-on to microfiber pollution. The results are also true in the case of reusable masks as the repeated laundry and disinfection methods release a significantly higher amount of microfibers. Only very few studies have addressed the release of microfiber from the mask, and no studies have reported the impact of personal protective equipment. The worldwide mass adaptation and improper disposal of these materials increase the seriousness of the problem multiple folds. These findings suggest the immediate requirement of critical analysis of the pandemic-related littering and microfiber release characteristics. The research also urges the need for the implementation of an environmental management plan as a mitigation strategy around the globe.
... WHO estimated that nearly 89 million masks were needed to control COVID-19 each month [4]. Face masks are a source of microplastic contaminants in water ecosystems [5][6][7][8][9] and in indoor and outdoor air [10,11], as polypropylene and other plastics-polystyrene, polycarbonate, polyethylene, or polyester, among others-are used in making face masks. This constitutes a big problem related to health for different living beings, including humans and the environment as a whole [12]. ...
Full-text available
After more than two years wearing surgical masks due to the COVID-19 pandemic, used masks have become a significant risk for ecosystems, as they are producing wastes in huge amounts. They are a potential source of disturbance by themselves and as microplastic contamination in the water system. As 5500 tons of face masks are estimated to be used each year, there is an urgent need to manage them according to the circular economy principles and avoid their inadequate disposal. In this paper, surgical wear masks (WM), without any further pretreatment, have been introduced as addition to mortars up to 5% in the weight of cement. Mechanical and microstructural characterization have been carried out. The results indicate that adding MW to the cement supposes a decrease in the properties of the material, concerning both strength and durability behavior. However, even adding a 5% of WM in weight of cement, the aspect of the mortars is quite good, the flexural strength is not significantly affected, and the strength and durability parameters are maintained at levels that—even lower than the reference—are quite reasonable for use. Provided that the worldwide production of cement is around 4.1 Bt/year, the introduction of a 5% of WM in less than 1% of the cement produced, would make it possible to get rid of the mask waste being produced.
... A typical example is the global face mask littering since the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic. The occurrence and potential disaster to the environment and solid waste management system has been reported by numerous researchers worldwide (Anastopoulos and Pashalidis, 2021;Aragaw, 2020;Benson et al., 2021;De-la-Torre et al., 2021;Fadare and Okoffo, 2020;Kalina et al., 2020;Kassam, 2020;Patrício Silva et al., 2020;Roberts et al., 2020). ...
The use of face masks outside the health care facility dates back a century ago. However, face masks use noticeably soared due to the COVID-19 (Coronavirus disease 2019) pandemic. As a result, an unprecedented influx of discarded face masks is ending up in the environment. This review paper delves into face masks in the environment using the DPSIR (driving forces, pressures, states, impacts, and responses) framework to simplify and communicate the environmental indicators. Firstly, the historical, and briefly the economic trajectory of face masks are discussed. Secondly, the main driving forces of face masks use with an emphasis on public health are explored. Then, the pressures exerted by efforts to fulfill the human needs (driving forces) are explored. In turn, the state of the environment due to the influx of masks along with the impacts are examined. Furthermore, the upstream, and downstream societal responses to mitigate the environmental damages of the driving forces, pressures, states, and impacts are reviewed. In summary, it has been shown from this review that the COVID-19 pandemic has been causing a surge in face mask usage, which translates to face masks pollution in both terrestrial and aquatic environments. This implies proper usage and disposal of face masks is paramount to the quality of human health and the environment, respectively. Moreover, further research on eco-friendly face masks is indispensable to mitigating the environmental damages occurring due to the mass use of surgical masks worldwide.
... Jung et al. (2021) stated that after usage, face masks must be discarded as infectious medical waste. However, recent studies including Roberts et al. (2020), Bouchet et al. (2021), Hartanto and Mayasari (2021) Morgana et al. (2021), and Selvaranjan et al. (2021) have shown that the growth in the production, patronage and usage of face masks has led to an increase in waste masks which is becoming a peculiar environmental challenge. ...
Full-text available
The extensive use of face masks has raised concerns about environmental pollution through improper disposal of used face masks after the emergence of COVID-19. The increasing use of PPEs to preventing the spread of COVID-19 has resulted in several environmental hazards, creating a new environmental barrier for solid waste management and worsened plastic pollution. This study aimed at assessing the occurrence and distribution of face masks in a metropolitan (Adum – Kumasi), municipal (Ejisu), community (Abenase) and an institution (KNUST) in Ghana. The study showed that a total of 535 face masks were numerated along a stretch of 1,720 m with a density ranging from 0.04 m to 0.42 m. A no significant relationship (P = 0.602) was established between the observation distances and the number of waste face masks numerated. The study also showed that for a 1% increase in the number of face masks on working days, there would be a 0.775% increase in non-working days. The disposal of used face masks results in the release of micro- and nano-plastics, Pb, Cu, Sb, Zn, Mn, Ti, Fe and Ca into environmental media. Plastic pollution may be a concern to ecosystems due to its persistence in the environment, lack of environmental awareness, sensitization and education, and poor waste management systems. To ensure a sustainable management of waste face masks, significant efforts are needed. These may include proper disposal, redesigning and producing masks from biodegradable materials, incorporating waste face masks into construction materials, and recycling PPE by pyrolyzing are suggested options for the effective management of face masks.
Full-text available
O isolamento social decorrente da pandemia da Covid-19, necessário para a contenção da transmissão do vírus, causou intensas mudanças em nossos hábitos e rotinas em todo o planeta, afetando a economia, a educação de crianças e jovens, e a saúde física e mental de todos. O objetivo deste estudo foi analisar os efeitos ambientais do isolamento social através de uma revisão narrativa da literatura, e a partir dessa análise produzir um material audiovisual que promova a educação ambiental através da divulgação científica, suscitando, através dessa experiência pandêmica, a reflexão sobre nossos impactos ambientais e as soluções possíveis para minimizá-los.
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