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Will coronavirus face masks be the next plastic problem?

Topic: Will coronavirus face masks be the next plastic problem?

Face masks used to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus as well as protecting yourself from the deadly disease have become an important tool in the past year that has been the COVID-19 pandemic. Though they’re necessary and useful, face masks — namely the disposable kind that are made of plastic microfibers — could be contributing to the world’s ongoing plastic problem, suggests new research.

Nearly 130 billion face masks are used globally each month, translating to about 3 million a minute, according to recent studies. But with many of these masks being disposable and made of plastic microfibers, and few to no guidelines on mask recycling, “it is urgent to recognize this potential environmental threat and prevent it from becoming the next plastic problem,” say researchers from the University of Southern Denmark and Princeton University, in a new study.

In a study recently published in the journal Frontiers of Environmental Science & Engineering, researchers warned that disposable masks made with plastic microfibers “cannot be readily biodegraded but may fragment into smaller plastic particles, namely micro-and nano plastics that widespread in ecosystems.”

The pandemic has ramped up the production of disposable masks, which the researchers say is now on a similar scale as plastic bottles, a major contributor to the world’s plastic problem with some 43 billion bottles produced worldwide each month.

However, there is a key difference between the two: unlike plastic bottles — about 25% of which is recycled — “there is no official guidance on mask recycle, making it more likely to be disposed of as solid waste,” the researchers said in the study.

“When not properly collected and managed, masks can be transported from land into freshwater and marine environments by surface run-off, river flows, oceanic currents, wind, and animals (via entanglement or ingestion). The occurrence of waste masks has been increasingly reported in different environments and social media have shared of wildlife tangled in elastic straps of masks,” the researchers wrote in the study. “Like other plastic debris, disposable masks may accumulate and release harmful chemical and biological substances, such as bisphenol A, heavy metals, as well as pathogenic micro-organisms.”

“Moreover,” they wrote, “the uptake of small plastic particles is known to cause adverse health effects by three main possible means: particle toxicity, chemical toxicity, and pathogenic microorganism vectors.”

Topic Discussed: Will coronavirus face masks be the next plastic problem?

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