1.56 Billion Plastic Face Masks Ended up in Oceans in 2020

Single-use plastics have had a fast revival during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Fabienne Lang

Approximately 52 billion face masks were made in 2020 in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic — with an estimate of 1.56 billion ending up in our oceans, as a report from a Hong Kong-based environmental group stated.

OceansAsia's report dived into the terrifying scale of plastic pollution brought on by the pandemic, something which our planet will be dealing with for roughly 450 years — the amount of time it takes for plastic to break down. 


The report says its calculations are "conservative," but that we're likely to see 3% of these 52 billion face masks enter our waters. 

These are concerning numbers, especially as the report stated that "Annually, it is estimated that marine plastic pollution kills 100,000 marine mammals and turtles, over a million seabirds, and even greater numbers of fish, invertebrates, and other marine life."

Not only is sea life hugely impacted, so are "coastal communities, fisheries, and economies." 

Plastic pollution skyrocketed in 2020 due to COVID-19. Safety precautions for humans meant that a huge number of single-use plastic personal protective equipment (PPE) such as face masks and gloves were produced. A lot of which will end up harming our environment. 

"Single-use face masks are made from a variety of meltblown plastics and are difficult to recycle due to both composition and risk of contamination and infection," the report wrote.

"These masks enter our oceans when they are littered or otherwise improperly discarded, when waste management systems are inadequate or non-existent, or when these systems become overwhelmed due to increased volumes of waste."

Vast amounts of sea animals and life will suffer due to this waste. Back in September, a penguin found dead on a beach in Brazil had a face mask wedged in its stomach. Such instances are sadly only bound to increase.

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Actions to minimize plastic pollution

The authors of the report explain that there are solutions we can all undertake so as to minimize the impact of pandemic-related plastic pollution

For instance, when possible, try and wear re-usable face masks or masks made from sustainable materials. Always try and dispose of face masks and gloves responsibly. 

Moreover, try and minimize single-use plastic, and try to buy goods or order take-away food from companies that offer alternatives.

With the ongoing pandemic, we can all do our bit to try and minimize the impact it has on our environment if we follow such measures all while staying safe.

Read the full report here

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