COVID-19's Mask Pollution: Loss
Updated: Mar 20
This is the third article of a four-part series entitled COVID-19’s Mask Pollution about face masks pollution and, amongst other concerns, the impact personal protective equipment (PPE) is inflicting in the environment, specifically the ocean.
COVID-19’s Mask Pollution is mainly based on the report, Masks on the Beach: The Impact of COVID-19 on Marine Plastic Pollution, published by Hong-Kong based marine conservation organisation OceansAsia.
Aside from the littering, which we can all agree visually is unpleasant, the reality of face masks pollution goes beyond our sore sight.
Although at the moment there are very few studies that explore the degradation of disposal face masks, we can take into account the ones that already exist to similar products and compare results.
It is estimated that it will take as long as 450 years for a mask to fully decompose. Still, it comes with a catch though; it will never really decompose.
When we look at a study - released in 2020 - examining plastic pollution in the Magdalena River in Neiva, Columbia, we can read that “the degradation of nonwoven synthetic textiles was the predominant origin of micro-plastics microfibres found in both water and sediment samples”. Materials like polypropylene and polyethylene used to manufacture face masks can easily break down into said microplastics.
However, before the face masks degrade we have to deal with a different set of problems.
In July 2020, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA), in the United Kingdom, found a seagull near Chelmsford entangled in the mask’s ear loops. The next month, just across the pond, in Miami, USA, “a dead, bloated puffer fish tangled in the ear loops of a disposal blue face mask” was found on a beach clean-up. A month later, a little to the south, a Brazilian marine conservation organisation called Instituto Argonauta, found a N95 mask inside a Magellanic Penguin’s stomach.
In addition, something to be considered is during the degradation process, face masks will likely develop algal growth. This means, not only will they look similar to food they will also smell like it; makes it more difficult than already is for marine wildlife to distinguish this kind of pollution from actual prey. One of the species that suffers the most from this phenomenon is sea turtles.
As referred to in our last article - COVID-19’s Mask Pollution: Consumption - a mask consist of three layers, a nose strip and ties or ear loops. Acknowledging the fact that these are all different materials, the thought of it being recycled is a fantasy.
Leaving aside the fact that it would be heavily complex, it is not cost-efficient to recycle it. The whole process that would entitle: collecting, separating and recycling; would surpass the value of the recycled material, hence the process not being cost-effective.
Also, in that same article of this series, we mentioned that the likelihood of medical personal protective equipment (PPE) going astray is very low, nonetheless, there is no such thing as a perfect system. And between gathering and incineration some PPE might end up lost, especially when you remember that most of these medical facilities were, and some still are, overwhelmed.
General waste systems do not operate as efficiently as do medical ones. Furthermore, given the increase of PPE mixed with household waste as well as household waste alone, many of these facilities easily get swamped which leads to an overload of rubbish.
On top of that, we can add “many waste-management services have not been at full capacity, owing to social-distancing rules and stay-at-home orders”. Bear in mind that things we’re not that great before the pandemic.
So just a quick recap before we move on, not only are we generating more waste at a global scale but due to social distancing restrictions, we’re also reducing personnel on duty.
The majority of PPE is lightweight, therefore when dumped in open landfills chances are that said PPE will easily be drifted away by the wind, spreading the pollution across the surrounding areas and so on.
Circling back, one of the most ordinary ways of PPE entering the environment is without a doubt by littering. Either intentional or accidental e.g., falling out of a pocket, incorrectly disposed face masks and gloves are nowadays an active source of plastic pollution.
An interesting fact about littering that has been scientifically proven is “people tend to litter because they feel no sense of personal ownership to the objects being discarded”, people also are “susceptible to the littering behaviour of those around them… people tend to litter more when in an already littered environment”. Perhaps that explains why in the UK there has been a reported increase of 300% in illegal waste disposal, commonly known as fly-tipping.
As mentioned in Masks on the Beach: The Impact of COVID-19 on Marine Plastic Pollution, calculating face mask loss is quite challenging. Conflicting reports related to consumption result in poor data – consequently – hindering an accurate calculation of the amount of waste that is going to end up in the environment from happening.
A study developed by the University College of London (UCL), calculates that “if every person in the UK used one disposable surgical mask each day for a year this would create over 124,000 tonnes of unrecyclable plastic waste (66,000 tonnes of contaminated waste and 57,000 tonnes of plastic packaging)”
Putting it in perspective, clearly not every person living in the United Kingdom is using a mask a day, for multiple reasons. However, even though every person in Britain may not be using a mask every day, when you add other countries to the number of Brits that are actually using a mask every day is not that hard to reach the 124,000 tonnes of plastic waste.
The formula below was created to give us a rather reliable estimate of the number of masks that are uninvitedly entering the ecosystem. It helps give some context to the problem of mask pollution that is worsening the plastic crisis we had already put in place.
This formula uses a loss rate of 3%, which represents the number of masks expected to enter the environment; a conservative loss rate of 1% can also be applied for the more sceptical; a rate of 2% can be used as a littering rate to estimate the number of masks found in the street.
The 3% rate is not suggested to be used in medical sites, since more often than not they have mechanisms in place to efficiently deal with PPE waste. Also, there are several constituencies prioritising PPE in medical sites over the general public, so it is expected that a larger percentage of them are used in a medical site.
Doing a different assessment considering every situation, medical settings’ masks should either be excluded from calculations or should be calculated with a 1% loss rate, as you will see ahead.
In order to apply the aforementioned equation to determine the amount of lost face masks and the waste’s weight of said masks, we need 3 sets of data:
First, the number of face masks consumed per month, in a given region.
Second, the weight of the face mask, on average, between 3gm and 4gm. 
Third, the loss rate from 1% to 3%.
The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) estimated that healthcare workers would require around 840 million masks, and caregivers and patients around 360 million. If you want to do the math and use the formula previously mentioned, choosing a 1% loss rate, the total will round the 12 million lost face masks.
Despite the fact, the data does not correspond to the actual consumption the United International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF), estimates that low and middle-income countries would “reach 2.2 billion surgical masks, 1.1 billion gloves, 13 million goggles and 8.8 million face shields” if you apply the formula the numbers skyrocket.
Below, you can find an example of how the formula works:
We will be looking at some of the solutions that have the potential to ease this mask pollution crisis and what you can do to help.
Meanwhile, click the COVID-19's Mask Pollution tag below and have a look at the other articles from this series.
 In their report, OceanAsia weighed “a typical blue surgical mask, a ‘PA 2 Layer Disposable Mask’ widely sold in boxes of 50… calculated its weight at 3.4g.” and a second mask, “this one a 3M model 1835 level 3 surgical mask, yielding a weight of 3.6g”.