1.56 Billion Face Masks Will Have Entered Oceans in 2020, According to Report

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We’re in a bit of a pickle here. On one hand, we need a face mask (and plenty of it) to protect ourselves against coronavirus, and wearing one (and more and more) has helped slow COVID-19’s spread, so that’s all good.   

On the other hand, our compliance with the wearing of the face mask every day and always has led to this problem: According to a study by OceansAsia, an estimated 1.56 billion face masks will flood the oceans in 2020.

In February, the marine conservation group already reported “masses of surgical masks washing up on the shoreline” of Soko Islands in Hong Kong, and it appears that amount has ballooned.

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“The 1.56 billion face masks that will likely enter our oceans in 2020 are just the tip of the iceberg,” says Dr. Teale Phelps Bondaroff, director of research for OceansAsia and lead author of the report. “The 4,680 to 6,240 metric tons of face masks are just a small fraction of the estimated eight to 12 million metric tons of plastic that enter our oceans each year.”

OceansAsia, which released its findings in the study “Masks on the Beach: The Impact of COVID-19 on Marine Plastic Pollution,” stresses how single-use face masks are “difficult to recycle due to both composition and risk of contamination.” Moreover, these masks turn into microplastics and take around 450 years to break down.

“Marine plastic pollution is devastating our oceans,” says Gary Stokes, operations director of OceansAsia. “Plastic pollution kills an estimated 100,000 marine mammals and turtles, over a million seabirds, and even greater numbers of fish, invertebrates, and other animals each year.”


What to do? The study proposes solutions such as the development of sustainable face masks and the improvement of waste management systems, among others, but here’s something easy you can do right now: Wear a reusable face mask.

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