Why billions of face masks end up polluting oceans?


In 2020 alone, about 1.5 billion face masks found their way into the world’s oceans. And this is far from over, bearing in mind that the pollution journey from far inland is not complete. That is why environmentalists estimate that 75 % of all facemasks ever won will end up in the oceans.  

Note that the current world population is over 7 billion people. Nearly every one of these needs a facemask for protection against Covid-19. Couple this with the fact that some people use a new facemask every day, while others in the medical profession use several a day. The total number of facemasks used and discarded so far are dozens of billions, if not hundreds. Factor in 75% of this and you’ll see why conservationists can’t keep calm.

How facemasks end up in the ocean

Let’s set the record straight right away and state that ocean pollution is not brought about by coastal communities alone. As a matter of fact, land-based sources contribute more to ocean pollution. It all happens through forces of nature, though man’s carelessness plays a great role.

At the end of a busy day, you throw your face mask into the garbage bin and pick another one for the next day. Depending on how the garbage bin at your home is constructed, the facemask can either stay composed until the municipality waste collectors come to empty the bin or be blown away by the wind. Covid-19 facemasks weigh just a couple of grams – a characteristic that makes them easy to be carried by the wind. Once in the air, the facemask can travel for hundreds or even thousands of kilometers until it is trapped in a way that it can no longer be released. 

Some fall in the nearest stream or river, and the journey to the ocean begins. Many rivers travels travel hundreds of kilometers to drain their waters into the ocean. Facemasks, owing to their lightweight, freely float on water. 

If the facemask happens to be collected with other trash, the possibility of being blown away by the wind is still high.  Some are dumped on open garbage heaps where they can easily re-route to flowing streams. 

On some days, you accidentally or deliberately drop your facemask on the street. The same wind we just mentioned immediately starts its evil job. 

Beachgoers are also culprits when it comes to ocean pollution. The carefree attitude – wherein people throw all care into the wind and litter the beach as they want – also directly deposits millions of facemasks into the ocean. 

Some coastal communities have no proper waste management systems. All they do is dump truckloads of trash into the ocean and leave it to the mercies of the ocean currents. 

Some scrupulous institutions and industries never want to bear the burden of proper waste disposal. They directly discharge solid wastes into nearby rivers or the ocean itself. 

With all these sources of trash, it is no wonder that millions of facemasks find their way into the ocean with every rise of the sun. 

What are the effects of facemasks on the marine ecosystem?

With the current trend, it is projected that very soon facemasks in the ocean will outnumber jellyfish – which we understand is food to hundreds of marine animals. Being the animals that they are – poor in judgments – they eat the facemasks thinking it is food. Sea turtles are especially known for this. 

The end result is the painful death of these animals due to the entanglement of trash in their stomachs. 

Facemasks also play a great role in blocking the penetration of sunlight into the ocean waters. This means that green plants growing on the ocean floor die off since the process of photosynthesis is no longer possible. Millions of marine animals depending on such plants can subsequently end up dying of hunger. 

Is there anything that can be done?

The first thing to do if you care for the environment is to be responsible. You don’t have to litter the streets, parks, and beaches with Covid facemasks. Be enough of a gentleman and place it right inside the designated bins.

Additionally, go for the more eco-friendly Covid-19 facemasks. You don’t have to wear surgical masks to stay protected. These have plastic filters that are non-biodegradable. Instead, wear a facemask made from biodegradable materials like hemp, sugarcane, cotton, and bamboo. 

Also, wash your facemasks and wear them again and again. Discard them as trash only when the protection capability is compromised.