A new study shows that face mask trash surged by 9,000% between March and October 2020. It demonstrates a direct relationship between national legislation and the presence of thrown waste, which includes face masks and other COVID-19-related personal protective equipment.
When making the wearing of face masks mandatory, researchers from the University of Portsmouth are asking governments to implement regulations and legislation for the disposal of discarded face masks.
The findings were based on findings from two open source databases: the large “COVID-19 Government Response Tracker” and a litter collection app called “Litterati”.
More than two million pieces of litter were gathered in 11 nations, each of which had a different COVID-19 policy response. Researchers were able to plot the countries’ policy actions (lockdown severity, mask policies) and acquire a baseline of litter proportions from September 2019 through the first six months of the outbreak using these databases.
“Overall the study shows the impact that legislating the use of items such as masks can have on their occurrence as litter,” said lead researcher Dr Keiron Roberts, Lecturer in Sustainability and the Built Environment at the University of Portsmouth, adding, “we found that littered masks had an exponential increase from March 2020, resulting in an 84-fold increase by October 2020. There is a clear need to ensure that requiring the use of these items is accompanied with education campaigns to limit their release into the environment.”
Dr Roberts added: “This data allowed us to look at the COVID-19 litter trends on a monthly basis. We then matched up the WHO announcements and national policy and lockdown restrictions to see how this impacted litter proportions. It wasn’t a surprise to see mask litter appear, but what did surprise us was how national legislation had dramatically impacted the occurrence of mask litter.”
The following patterns have emerged:
- January – March. As countries grappled for adequate PPE the guidance was to socially/ physically distance from each other.
- March – May. The most severe lockdowns were during this period, and as such, mask littering was low but on the increase.
- June – October. The WHO recommended the use of masks to help facilitate social interaction. This followed the relaxation of many lockdown measures, and so an increase in people’s freedoms. Mask litter increased dramatically within these months.
Almost all garbage is avoidable, although the harm is often only visible. Littering has a number of direct effects on the world around us:
Short-term Litter can act as a viral vector for COVID-19 transmission. If they go into the sewers, they can cause clogs because they entangle with other objects like leaves.
Medium-term They can entangle and suffocate large animals, and if eaten, can cause difficulties. Litter can suffocate smaller organisms and plant life wherever it lands.
Long-term Littered goods can continue to have the above-mentioned effects once they enter the ecosystem, as well as serve as a transmission pathway for other contaminants. If they are made of plastic, they will eventually degrade into microplastics and may enter the food chain.
Dr Roberts concluded: “We need to avoid this pandemic litter becoming a lasting legacy. There are two important messages to learn from this study. Firstly, COVID-19 was a major driver in the emergence of mask litter and secondly, government policies and legislation can have a large impact on the composition of litter. New policies should have well-structured advice and importantly infrastructure to help dispose of waste.
“As nations use masks to support social interactions, they need to support the safe disposal of this litter, and while they are at it, all other litter too.”
Image Credit: Getty
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