A World With More Than 129 Billion Face Masks

One of two masks I saw at Rosy’s Dog Beach in Long Beach, CA.

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic there have been positive environmental impacts such as the decrease of carbon dioxide being released into the atmosphere from people using less transportation (Patrício Silva et al. 2021). Yet, plastic pollution has dramatically increased due to PPE (personal protective equipment) waste. PPE are considered single use plastics — which make up 80% of all waste that enters the ocean each year. Since the start of COVID-19 researchers estimate that people have used 129 billion face masks and 65 billion gloves worldwide (Prata et al. 2020). With the increase of plastic pollution globally scientists say that we have entered a new era, the “Plasticine” era (Canning-Clode et al. 2020). According to NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) 8 million metric tons of plastic enters our ocean each year which is equal to the weight of 90 carrier planes! (Commerce n.d.) This number is astonishing and not looking good for the future with scientists predicting that amount of plastic pollution will double by 2030 (Patrício Silva et al. 2021). Even if you do not live near the ocean, many marine pollution comes from sources far from the coast through river channels and sewage systems.

Seagull that was found entangled by a mask and could not move in Essex.

Before the pandemic, many governments around the world started reducing or banning single use plastics, but once the pandemic started many of these rules went out the window. A recent study found that there has been an increase in the number of google query hits discussing PPE and litter after the first COVID-19 reports (Canning-Clode et al. 2020). This reveals that communities around the U.S. have seen an increase in PPE litter and have had it reported through their news outlets. Personally, I live near the beach and I see 2–3 masks in the sand every time I walk on the beach, and I know I am not the only one seeing more PPE discarded on their beaches and neighborhoods. Marine life can be killed or severely harmed through entanglement, ingestion, and suffocation of plastic pollution. Pictures have already started to be shared through social media of sea birds and fish being entangled through mask loops. Another way that marine life are affected by PPE are through the leaching of plastic additives from masks. Also when the masks do break down they become smaller micro plastics that are consumed by smaller organisms which bio accumulate toxins in the marine food chain.

CDC’s image of how wearing a cloth face mask can protect you from transmitting COVID-19 to others.

The CDC has recommended that people use cloth face masks that have two layers of cloth and fully protect the nose and mouth. They can be easily cleaned through washing and drying at the highest heat setting (CDC 2020). Cloth masks are safe to the environment and also protect people from COVID-19. Studies show that use of reusable masks can decrease the plastic pollution caused by PPE by 95% (Patrício Silva et al. 2021). We should all take the correct measures to protect ourselves and others from COVID-19 and preserve our environment at the same time.

Canning-Clode, João, Pedro Sepúlveda, Sílvia Almeida, and João Monteiro. 2020. “Will COVID-19 Containment and Treatment Measures Drive Shifts in Marine Litter Pollution?” Frontiers in Marine Science 7 (August): 691. https://doi.org/10.3389/fmars.2020.00691.

CDC. 2020. “Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19).” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. February 11, 2020. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/prevent-getting-sick/about-face-coverings.html.

Commerce, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration US Department of. n.d. “NOAA’s National Ocean Service.” Accessed September 8, 2020. https://oceanservice.noaa.gov/hazards/marinedebris/plastics-in-the-ocean.html.

Patrício Silva, Ana L., Joana C. Prata, Tony R. Walker, Armando C. Duarte, Wei Ouyang, Damià Barcelò, and Teresa Rocha-Santos. 2021. “Increased Plastic Pollution Due to COVID-19 Pandemic: Challenges and Recommendations.” Chemical Engineering Journal 405 (February): 126683. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cej.2020.126683.

Prata, Joana C., Ana L.P. Silva, Tony R. Walker, Armando C. Duarte, and Teresa Rocha-Santos. 2020. “COVID-19 Pandemic Repercussions on the Use and Management of Plastics.” Environmental Science & Technology 54 (13): 7760–65. https://doi.org/10.1021/acs.est.0c02178.

“Seagull Found Trapped with Discarded Face Mask Wrapped around Its Feet.” 2020. Metro (blog). July 22, 2020. https://metro.co.uk/2020/07/22/fears-seagull-will-first-many-getting-trapped-face-mask-week-13022222/.




I'm a environmental educator for fun and a private gardener for work. I love being outside and introducing others to the amazing beauty of our planet.

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Jessica Callen

Jessica Callen

I'm a environmental educator for fun and a private gardener for work. I love being outside and introducing others to the amazing beauty of our planet.

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