Mask pollution, after the pandemic

Editor’s Note: The following is part of a class project initiated in the classroom of Ball State University professor Adam Kuban, who urged his students to find sustainability efforts in the Muncie area. Several such stories will be featured in November and December 2021.

MUNCIE, Ind. – By mid-March 2020, a large segment of Americans became aware of the severity of the growing COVID-19 crisis.

A pandemic had been declared; Travel to other countries was to be avoided and states had begun to issue residence orders. While the media reported that toilet paper and paper towels were noticeably missing from store shelves, another problem should soon arise.

As states began enforcing mask requirements, people looked for face coverings wherever they could, and prices rose. The World Health Organization announced on March 3, 2020 that the price of surgical masks had increased sixfold.

More:BSU sustainability project: There are many threats to modern bee populations in the Midwest

Almost two years after the pandemic broke out, many of these masks have found their way off our faces into our seas and forests, creating a new, increasingly worrying problem for our environment: mask pollution.

According to a 2020 study by the Hong Kong-based marine conservation organization OceansAsia published in Masks on the Beach: The Impact of COVID-19 on Marine Plastic Pollution, an estimated 1.56 billion face masks ended up polluting our oceans 2020.

This meant that an additional 4,680 to 6,240 tons of plastic ended up in the water. In its maximum estimate, this corresponds roughly to the weight of almost 9.2 million full-size basketballs.

Their typical single-use masks are made primarily from polypropylene, a plastic commonly used in bottle caps, detergent bottles, and food packaging, as stated by Waste4Change, an Indonesian waste management organization.

This type of plastic can absorb toxins and organic pollutants that can poison marine life and affect development, according to a 2021 study published by Elsevier entitled “Environmental Challenges Caused by Extensive Face Mask Use During COVID-19: A review and potential solutions. ”

Disposable masks can also become tangled if improperly dismantled or disposed of, which can lead to the death of animals. But it’s not just a water problem; it affects our country – and even our roads.

More:BSU sustainability project: Muncie’s forest management plant native trees in the city

Joshua Gruver, associate professor of natural resources and environmental management at Ball State University, said that while mask pollution hadn’t come up in his research on forest conservation and conservation, he admittedly gave it a lot of thought.

“No matter where you are – on the freeway, on foot downtown or on campus or in any other state – the blue medical masks in particular are everywhere,” said Gruver. “Left on sidewalks, gutters, roadsides, whatever. It certainly speaks for the fact that a lot of people wear them, which is good. “

However, the environmental cost of masks is viewed as a double-edged sword.

“Right now, masks are an interesting thing to think about. Because of the uncertainty caused by the COVID virus and the difficulty of using masks early, I may tend that the environmental waste is worth the cost, ”said Jane Ellery, a representative for Sustainable Muncie, a nonprofit that strives to low- and middle-income communities.

“That is changing quickly, however. At this point in the crisis, we should be better equipped to deal with masks. “

Amy Gregg, Associate Professor of Environment, Geology, and Natural Resources at Ball State, mentioned how difficult she found it to be to assess the potential problem.

“That’s the question I struggle with all the time in the classes I teach,” Gregg said when asked about the cost of harming animals to save lives. “This disease is just so severe. It’s a terrible compromise. “

To combat this, according to Yale Sustainability, wearing a reusable mask is recommended. While some disposable mask wearers throw them away after just a day, reusable masks can be used repeatedly as long as they are cleaned frequently. In this way, you are helping to keep plastic out of our oceans and our land.

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