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Triple-win Climate Solutions: An easy fix for toxic mask pollution

  • Neva Duncan Tabb

  • Oct 21, 2020

As the COVID-19 pandemic swelled and expanded across the globe, the common mantra echoed by governments became: Wash your hands! Practice social distancing! Wear a mask!

Responsible citizens have adopted this mantra but, in our efforts to be good citizens and protect each other, we apparently have triggered the law of unintended consequences. Suddenly we find scores of plastic masks floating in our oceans, and waterlogged latex gloves and small bottles of hand sanitizer littering the ocean floor.

The glut of plastic waste in our oceans has been well-documented, along with heart-breaking photos illustrating its threat to marine life. Species such as sea turtles and seabirds have been discovered entangled in plastic fishing line or with stomachs full of plastic waste.

Now add disposable mask and gloves to the estimated 14 million tons of plastic pollution currently entering our oceans every year and the situation becomes even more dire. A recent study in the Environment, Science & Technology journal estimates that 129 billion face masks and 65 billion gloves are being used each month.

The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) expects about 75% of used masks to end up in landfills or floating in the oceans.

Already masks and gloves are washing up on beaches around the world, some attributed to carelessness, others apparently carried by wind from land, landfills and ships. This “COVID waste” has an estimated life of about 450 years — a long time to travel the globe, entangling marine life and soiling shores throughout its journeys.

Even more disturbing is the potential toxicity of these used masks. Think of the public health risks from infected used masks drifting in the atmosphere. In addition, disposing of COVID waste through open burning or incineration in waste treatment plants can also release toxins into the environment.

What you can do now: Mask-makers are making lemonade from the rotten lemon that is this pandemic. Either buy or make, and always wear a reusable mask that expresses your personality, your beliefs, or your fashion style. Even better — buy two or more.

Keep a clean mask in your vehicle where you always remember to put it on when you’re in public or with someone who doesn’t live with you. For optimal protection, make sure it’s lined with a non-woven material for optimal protection. Wash it after every use.

Also, instead of latex gloves, wash your hands frequently. Carry hand sanitizer in reusable containers and refill when necessary.

Masks can be made from common materials, such as sheets made of tightly woven cotton. Instructions are easy to find online. Cloth masks should include multiple layers of fabric.

Don't use face masks as a substitute for social distancing.”

Win-win-win: You’ll be reducing the dangers posed by the coronavirus and protecting our oceans and shores simultaneously. You’ll be helping today’s babies to inherit a climate they can survive in.

What’s required: Understanding what can happen when we are careless, and the maturity not to create another tragedy out of the current one.

Who says—the experts:

UN News. (July 30, 2020). Five things you should know about disposable masks and plastic pollution.

The Guardian. (2020, June 8). ‘More masks than jellyfish’: coronavirus waste winds up in the ocean.

Giuliani-Hoffman, F. (2020, June 24). Conservationists warn COVID waste may result in ‘more masks than jellyfish’ in the sea. CNN.

UN Environment Programme. (2018, June 5). The state of plastics: World Environment Day Outlook 2018.

Prata, J, (2020, June 12). COVID-19 Pandemic Repercussions on the Use and Management of Plastics. Environmental Science & Technology, 5(13)

Neva Duncan Tabb is a meteorologist and science educator with an MA in Physical Geography (University of South Florida). She taught science at St. Petersburg College for over 25 years and for the past 15 years has taught physical geography at the University of South Florida. She and her husband live half the year in WNC.

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