TORONTO — More than 1.56 billion face masks used in 2020 will make their way into our planet’s oceans, joining literal tonnes of other plastic pollution, according to an estimate by OceansAsia.
The Hong-Kong based marine conservation organization released a report on Monday that details one of the devastating side-effects of the COVID-19 pandemic: the increase in plastic use and disposal.
They hypothesized that the face masks would add up to around 4,860 to 6,240 tons of extra plastic waste in the oceans.
“The 1.56 billion face masks that will likely enter our oceans in 2020 are just the tip of the iceberg,” Dr. Teale Phelps Bondaroff, Director of Research for OceansAsia, and lead author of the report said in a press release. “[It’s] just a small fraction of the estimated 8 to 12 million metric tonnes of plastic that enter our oceans each year.”
The researchers acknowledge that it’s difficult to pinpoint the exact number of masks that have been manufactured worldwide, and also to figure out what percentage would have been inappropriately disposed of.
Previous research has suggested that three per cent of plastic waste finds its way into our oceans. Using a global production estimate of 52 billion masks manufactured in 2020 — a number that comes from a June report forecasting production numbers — and a conservative three-per-cent loss rate, OceansAsia arrived at the 1.56 billion estimate for how many masks will end up in the Earth’s oceans.
The research started when OceansAsia visited an isolated beach in the Soko Islands in late February 2020. As the beach was boat-access only, anything found on the shore would’ve been washed up from the ocean, not left there by visitors.
They expected to see a couple masks washed up with other plastic pollution. What they weren’t expecting was to come across 70 masks strewn across a 100 metre stretch of the beach.
At that time, it was six weeks after mask-wearing had become the norm in Hong Kong due to COVID-19.
The team continued visiting the beach, and would post photos of the face masks they found on Facebook, lining up the bedraggled blue rectangles on the sand. And the mask numbers persisted throughout the months.
In late November, two volunteers “collected 54 masks over the course of one hour from our original test beach,” the report stated.
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