How the masks meant to prevent Covid are now choking the environment

They wash up on beaches, float like jellyfish in oceans, and are ubiquitous underfoot whether you’re in a park, nature reserve or city street.

Dec 10, 2021, updated Dec 10, 2021
(AP photo)

(AP photo)

Now Queensland and international researchers have found just how pervasive a litter problem pandemic masks have become.

Since the pandemic was declared, carelessly discarded disposable protective face masks have become an environmental side-effect of Covid-19, growing as a proportion of global litter by almost 9,000 per cent.

Griffith University researcher and study co-author Dr Jasper de Bie said directives to wear masks, sanitise surfaces and wear gloves in response to the Covid-19 pandemic were linked directly to an increase in these items turning up as litter.

“We can say that the proportion of masks in litter increased 80 to 90-fold as a result of Covid-19 legislation. That’s for masks – then there’s gloves and wipes,” de Bie said.

Using citizen science litter monitoring app Litterati to analyse how the pandemic changed litter habits, the researchers tracked increases in mask, glove, sanitising wipe and sanitiser bottle litter rates.

Between October 2019 and October 2020, the figures for masks went from 0.01 per cent of worldwide litter to 0.8 per cent, an increase of almost 9,000 per cent.

Gloves and wipes litter doubled, with glove litter making a sharp jump in the initial stages of the pandemic, but then falling after the introduction of facemask policies.

The researchers compared the litter trends across 11 countries, including Australia, the US and UK, mapping it against each country’s approach to dealing with Covid-19 by imposing restrictions and mask-wearing directions as the pandemic unfolded.

“Some countries are better than others. If we take Australia, overall there hadn’t been a lot of litter of this type collected before the pandemic was announced and even after the pandemic was announced, the amount of masks and gloves and wipes was very low in terms of the proportion of litter,” de Bie said.

“If you compare that to the UK and other countries in Europe like Germany and France, they did see a very big increase in masks and gloves and wipes in their litter.

“The national policies that these countries imposed were a driver for these types of litter in the environment, especially the implementation of face mask policies.”

The UK had the highest increase in mask litter with masks accounting for more than 6 per cent of the national litter tally. The UK also had the longest sustained increase in glove litter from April to October 2020.

Nations less impacted by Covid-19 lockdowns such as New Zealand, Australia and Sweden, which stood out as it imposed no national mandates requiring the public to wear personal protective equipment during the pandemic, had the lowest proportion of mask and glove litter.

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The study period didn’t cover the emergence of the Delta variant or the massive breakout of positive cases in Australia across NSW and Victoria and subsequent state governments reactions to it.

In the study, published today in Nature Sustainability journal, the researchers said the colossal increase in pandemic-produced rubbish wasn’t just an eyesore, but had far more serious environmental impacts.

In the short term, face mask litter could potentially transmit Covid-19. It could also quickly cause blockages in sewers and urban runoff.

In the medium term, the discarded facemasks could entangle and choke animals, and even kill creatures if they ate the rubbish.

Over the long term, the litter would eventually break down to micro plastics that were increasingly being discovered in the food chain and potentially causing long-term health consequences.

“One of the things that we should take away from this is that things currently look good for us in Australia, for the pandemic and the litter problem,” de Bie said.

“If you look to the future, we should be in a very good position to prevent the same wave of litter that has happened in other countries.

“But that requires actions from our government, so we need the message out there for people to go through the effort to get rid of your masks, gloves and wipes in the correct way to keep the numbers low and keep the impact on the environment minimal.”


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