Extensive use of protective personal equipment (PPE) used in limiting the spread of COVID-19 has generated million tons of plastic waste to the environment in a short span of time. Ocean Asia predicts that 1.56 billion face masks has entered the oceans in 2020. These face masks will not only require 450 years to break down, but will further break down into microplastics that will endanger marine wildlife and ecosystems through bioaccumulation.
In April 2021, PhD candidate Kajana Selvarnjan from the University of Moratuwa in Sri Lanka along with his colleagues, released a study investigating the environmental impact induced by face masks, and sustainable solutions to reduce waste. Face masks are made from plastic derivatives in the form of polymer fabrics composed of polypropylene or polycarbonate. Although these materials have been efficient in curbing the spread of COVID-19, they pose a significant threat to the environment when disposed inappropriately. Face mask pollution continues to increase due to many individuals not following appropriate disposal methods. The study highlights that people should not be given all the blame since appropriate waste collecting methods have not been specified in many countries.
In order to reduce the micro-plastic pollution in the ocean, the study proposes the use of biodegradable masks. The researchers found that organic and biodegradable materials offer similar physical and chemical properties to plastic face masks. Biodegradable polymers provide the same light weight and high tensile strength as plastic masks but offer the benefit of being easily degradable and recyclable. Replacing the polypropylene polymer with a biodegradable polymer made from natural plant fibers will aid in reducing face masks contribution to the global plastic crisis.