Countless disposable face masks that the general public use to protect themselves from the novel coronavirus are discarded improperly, which means large numbers of these masks are already being found on seabeds and washed up on beaches, joining the day-to-day detritus in our ocean ecosystems.
In Europe, the plastic industry is using the threat of coronavirus contamination to push back against a ban on single-use plastics.
Such reframing of plastic as a “protective” health material can divert attention from its dangers to the environment. Prior research, as well as our preliminary findings, suggest these meanings matter when it comes to encouraging environmentally friendly behaviours.
Many commercially available disposable masks are made from layers of polypropylene or a mix of different plastics making them impossible to recycle. It is also not recommended that these disposable face masks be recycled due to the risk of contamination. Before Covid-19 arrived on our shores, these masks were only available in the local pharmacy. Howeve,r with the arrival of Covid-19 and surge in demand, these disposable face masks are readily available to everyone and can be bought in the 100’s from your local discount shop or online at an extremely cheap price.
But what is the real cost of these cheap disposable face masks?
According to an analysis by scientists at University College London, if every person in the UK used one single-use mask each day for a year, an extra 66,000 tonnes of contaminated plastic waste would be created. They say that according to the best evidence, reusable masks perform most of the tasks of single-use masks without the associated waste stream.
The French non-profit Opération Mer Propre, whose activities include regularly picking up litter along the Côte d’Azur, began sounding the alarm late last month.
Divers had found what Joffrey Peltier of the organisation described as “Covid waste” – dozens of gloves, masks and bottles of hand sanitiser beneath the waves of the Mediterranean, mixed in with the usual litter of disposable cups and aluminium cans.
"With a lifespan of 450 years, these masks are an ecological timebomb given their lasting environmental consequences for our planet,"Éric Pauget, a French politician, wrote last month in a letter to Emmanuel Macron, calling on the French president to do more to address the environmental consequences of disposable masks
Earlier this year the Hong Kong-based OceansAsia began voicing similar concerns, after a survey of marine debris in the city’s uninhabited Soko Islands turned up dozens of disposable masks.
While some of the debris could be attributed to carelessness, it was speculated that the lightweight masks were at times also being carried from land, boats and landfills by the wind.
Why are we not motivated to act?
The first is the lack of a personal connection to the issue, for example, ‘I do not throw plastic waste directly into the ocean’. The second is absence of an abrupt change, in that it takes years for plastic waste to build up in the environment. The third reason relates to immorality. If we do not see, or are unmoved by, pictures of seabirds with a mask on their beaks or stomachs full of plastic waste, we will not act. Finally, there is the question of immediacy. Does the plastic waste affect us now?
Having the motivation to change is important, but it must be supported by the opportunity and the capability to change.
What could be done to help individuals make better choices?
It’s down to the brands and retailers. They decide what they buy in. They decide if they want to sell disposable or reusable masks. High demand means high profits. Many businesses have answered to that demand but at what cost? Knowledge and education evidently isn’t enough to change our “disposable lifestyles”. The physical environment can be designed such that it is easier to choose the environmental option. Some of this will rely on suppliers and retailers rethinking the masks and other Covid-19 products they offer. In the long run, it’s hard to say where today’s crisis will leave the circular economy for plastics. Essentially retailers have the power to help shift their customer’s habits.
It remains to be seen if they will use that power.