After the Mask: Is Pandemic Mask-wearing a New Source of Plastic Ocean Pollution?

Facemasks. Once used primarily by medical professionals, facemasks are now a modern-day accessory and necessity thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. The World Health Organization (WHO) suggested the use of facemasks for the general public in areas where the virus was spreading in early June 2020 and 10 months later, 28 states still have a mask mandate in place. The below map highlights those states with a mandate in blue while those without mandates are in grey. Many of the central and southern states do not currently have mask orders in place while the east and west coasts do. Each state has varying degrees of requirements, but at the very least insist that members of the general public wear masks in crowded public spaces. When put next to a map depicting the votes of the 2020 presidential election, we can see just how politicized this issue is.

Data current as of April 11th, 2021

On the election map, blue states are those who cast a majority of their votes for Joe Biden while the red states voted for Donald Trump. With few exceptions, states who voted for Biden still have mask orders in place while those who voted for Trump either didn’t issue or no longer have mask orders in place. One exception is the state of Georgia. Prior to 2020, Georgia had a strong history of voting Republican but voted for Biden in 2020. Georgia is currently lead by Republican Governor Brian Kemp. Kemp encouraged mask-wearing but never issued a statewide mask order. Until this past fall, he even tried to limit more local governments from passing these orders at the city and county levels. North Carolina and Louisiana are likely exceptions for much of the same reasoning, but opposite circumstances; while they voted Republican in the 2020 election, they are led by Democratic governors. North Carolina is under the leadership of Governor Roy Cooper while Louisiana’s governor is John Bel Edwards.

The WHO guidance is based on research showing that mask-wearing could help reduce the spread of COVID-19. A study leading to this guidance found that the wearing of a facemask in public before symptoms appear is twice as effective in reducing the spread than only doing so once a person has symptoms. Additionally, they found that should half the population consistently wear facemasks in public, the virus would no longer spread at exponential rates.

Once the WHO changed the guidance to include mask-wearing by the general public, the entirely of the global population was on the hunt for a facemask. Supply lines were unprepared for this unprecedented demand but quickly stepped up the pace to meet needs while almost anyone with a sewing machine also got to work making cloth masks. In the commercial sector, China upped its medical mask production from less than 15 million in February of 2020 to 450 million by the end of April 2020 and Japan had a contract in place to produce 600 million masks a month as of April 2020. At home, people from all backgrounds got to work to help provide masks for those with immediate needs. Lisa Henderson, a woman from outside Pittsburg, spent the first few weeks of lockdown making masks for the homeless and had sewn over 250 within the first few weeks of COVID-19. A Trussville, Alabama woman took on a similar task in making masks for her community and selling them at a loss. As of July 2020, she had created well over 2,000 masks. Individuals like the 81-year old Barbara Batson from Pinson, Alabama, stepped up to make sure hospital workers also had masks as they, too, needed masks.

A year later, commercial suppliers are meeting, and in many cases exceeding, the demand for masks. They can be found everywhere from gas stations to grocery stores and even pet stores and bookshops. No longer are people fighting over masks, but instead forgetting them and grabbing one of the five they keep in their car for such an occasion. Disposable masks once washed and reused over weeks are now getting tossed and lost daily. Now that masks are publicly available by the box, you can find masks abandoned in parking lots, deserted on hiking trails, and floating in rivers. With the global focus on preventing the spread of the pandemic and getting past it, have we lost sight of the long-term consequences of our response? What is the impact of each discarded mask on the environment and how many of these masks will end up in our oceans?

Masks found in oceans and on beaches

A little over a week ago, I went for a short walk on a beach in the Destin, Florida area. In approximately 10 minutes, I found three solo cups, two pieces of plastic netting in various sizes (one was tiny), one small plastic shovel, a piece of a large plastic shovel, an Uncrustables wrapper, a plastic bread bag, an aluminum can, a bottle cap, a Band-Aid, and a mask. I probably could have grabbed more, but I didn’t have a receptacle other than my hand for these beach finds. Everything except for the aluminum can was made of plastic. This material is so engrained in our daily lives that we hardly even realize how much we use, and we often forget about where they end up once we’re through with them. However, if you start to pay a little more attention to the world around you, you’ll start seeing discarded plastics populating every corner, even those that are supposed to be pristine. While most of my beach finds are items that have been making their way to beaches for years, disposable masks are definitely a new addition.

Trash found on the beach near Destin, FL on Aprill 10th, 2021

While seemingly made of cloth, disposable masks are actually plastic. They’re made of several thermoplastic polymers. Thermoplastics, the long name for plastics, are a material that becomes soft and moldable when heated before returning to a solid when cool. The thermoplastic polymers used in making disposable masks include polypropylene, polyurethane, polyacrylonitrile, polystyrene, polycarbonate, polyethylene, and polyester. Polypropylene is a thermoplastic commonly used in product packaging. It’s the most common material used in the construction of disposable masks. Polyurethane is most often used in the creation of foam while polycarbonate is used in applications where durability is important. Polyester thermoplastics include one of the most widely known thermoplastics — polyethylene terephthalate (PET)- known for its use in products like water bottles. While plastic materials are most widely known for their use in these solid states, they can also be transformed into fibers that can, but don’t have to, be woven. It’s in this fibrous form that thermoplastics are turned into what we know as disposable masks.

Layers in a typical disposable mask. Source: ACS Material

Masks are made of three layers with the middle later doing a majority of the filtering work. The outside layer of the mask is made of non-woven, water-resistant fibers and the inside is made of softer fibers that are more comfortable to wear against the skin. The middle layer is made of a melt-blown fiber filter. Melt-blown filters are created by pushing hot thermoplastics through a small hole where it meets with high-powered air streams that turn the plastic into thin strands or webs depending on the airflow. In thin enough strands, these fibers closely resemble cloth and are used as substitutes for fabrics like cotton. However, unlike cotton, these materials take hundreds of years to decompose, not months. Further, facemasks are already composed of plastics in their smallest forms, nano-, and micro-plastics allowing them to more quickly make their way into the food chain.

Ocean conservation has become a hot-button topic in the last few years. Much of this has been part of efforts from groups like the Ocean Conservancy, Sea Shephard, Project AWARE. Parts of the movement were so popular that they even became identifying features of some sub-cultures like modern-day VSCO girls who have coined phrases such as “skip a straw, save a turtle.” Much of these conservation efforts have been toward limiting plastic use in an effort to keep it out of the ocean. Given that masks are plastic, it’s important to understand the general impact of ocean plastic in order to truly understand the role mask pollution could play in this problem.

While plastic is present throughout the ocean, most of it is concentrated in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, also known as the Pacific trash vortex. There are two main areas of this vortex: the Eastern Patch between California and Hawaii and the Western Patch between Japan and Hawaii. This area is not actually composed of floating trash islands but instead is primarily made up of low-density concentrations of micro-plastics interspersed with larger items like water bottles, toothbrushes, cell phones, and plastic bags. However, a majority of the large debris in this area is actually fishing nets. A 2018 study estimated that these fishing nets make up at least 46% of the total trash in the area. Conservationists and scientists were aware of this issue as far back as 1988 and predicted the existence of a floating garbage patch somewhere within the North Pacific Gyre. What we know of today as the Eastern Great Pacific Garbage Patch was discovered in 1997 by Charles Moore. It’s predicted that this vortex is distributed over an area somewhere between the size of Texas and Russia, but it’s hard to truly predict as the plastic pieces are not visible from the air.

Location of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch

One of the organizations heavily involved in conservation efforts in this area is The Ocean Cleanup, an organization unveiled by Boyan Slat in 2012. In 2012, at a TEDx conference, he stated his belief that the Garbage Patch could be cleaned up with five years of effort. In 2018, a paper released by The Ocean Cleanup estimated that the area covered over 994,000 square miles and contained over 176 million pounds of trash and nearly 2 trillion pieces of plastic. That’s an area roughly the size of Alaska, Texas, and Florida put together with a weight greater than that of the Washington Monument. Cleanup efforts are difficult as conservationists do not want to remove marine species from the environment. In order to prevent this, they must use specially designed equipment with human supervision. The Ocean Cleanup project launched the first collection system in September 2019, and another organization, The Ocean Voyages Institute, conducted cleanup efforts in June 2019 and June 2020, collecting over 420,000 pounds of trash.

While plastics exists in high concentrations throughout all bodies of the ocean, currents have congregated much of this plastic into this area. It’s estimated that the trash making up the bulk of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch largely comes from China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, and Thailand. Moreover, China is said to be responsible for 30% of the plastic that ends up in the ocean. The combined ocean plastic pollution coming from these countries is more than the total plastic pollution of the rest of the globe. The chart below depicts the concentrations of ocean plastic in each of the major marine areas; the North & South Atlantic, North & South Pacific, Mediterranean, and Indian Oceans.

The segment for each area is divided into four types of ocean plastic; small microplastics, large microplastics, meso-plastics, and macro-plastics. Small microplastics are defined as those measuring .33 to one millimeter, large microplastics are those measuring more than one millimeter but less than 4.75 millimeters, meso-plastics are between 4.76 and 200 millimeters, and macro plastics are any items greater than 200 millimeters. This would mean that items the size of a 16.9-ounce water bottle and larger are defined as macro-plastics, while items the size of a mechanical pencil’s eraser and up to the length of the entire mechanical pencil are meso-plastics.

While the North Pacific region clearly has the largest amount of plastic by a fairly wide margin, other regions still have large amounts of plastic. The Indian Ocean is the region with the second greatest amount of plastic with about 35% less plastic than the North Pacific. The North Atlantic has the next most plastic with 47% less plastic. The chart also depicts the ratio of micro-plastics to larger-sized plastics. Micro-plastics are represented by the blue shades while the larger sizes are depicted in grey. This shows that micro-plastics make up a majority of the plastics found in the ocean. In fact, they represent over 90% of the plastics found in each of the six regions. While the Mediterranean appears to have the least amount of plastic, it is also the smallest marine area, disproportionately representing 7% of ocean microplastics but only 1% of world oceans. In actuality, the concentration of plastics in the Mediterranean is equal to that of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

The biggest problem for ocean plastic comes from micro-plastics, defined by the National Ocean and Atmospheric Association as plastic pieces less than 5mm in size. This occurs when the sun breaks down larger items containing plastics into smaller and smaller pieces as plastic itself does not really biodegrade, but fragments in sunlight. In fact, one study found that bacteria are unable to consume plastic and are unlikely to gain this ability through evolution. Further, cooler ocean temperatures cause this process to take longer in the marine environment than it would on land. The process of breaking down plastics not only produces plastics small enough for all types of fish to digest, but can release additional toxins in the process and block sunlight from reaching algae, plankton, and other grasses and plants in the ocean. This will eventually trickle up the food chain, meaning less food for apex predators like sharks, killer whales, and sea lions. Additionally, less plankton is available for both small and large filter feeders like whale sharks, basking sharks, and blue whales. Of particular concern is that some of the micro-plastics eventually make it up the food chain and into foods we consume. It’s estimated that humans consume more than 40 pounds of plastic over their lifetime. Additionally, sea birds are also endangered by plastic in the ocean. Like fish, birds are subject to becoming entrapped in or eating plastic, both of which can kill them.

Plastic items found in the stomach of a fish. Source: Forbes

All of these animals are also subject to indirect harm from degrading plastics in the form of chemicals. As plastics break down and are exposed to the sun, they release chemicals like polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB) and dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane (DDT). PCB is a synthetic chemical that was primarily used as a cooling fluid up until the late 1970s. It is known to affect intellectual development, is likely a carcinogen, and is believed to be toxic for human immune systems, reproductive organs, and thyroids. DDT was created for use as an insecticide in the 1940s and was widely used during World War II to fight diseases originating from insects. In the years following the war, it was also used in agricultural and commercial operations. DDT was banned by the Environmental Protection Agency in 1972. Exposure to DDT can impact the nervous system, leading to dizziness, tremors, irritability, and convulsions in the short term. Long-term exposure can cause long-term neurological and cognitive problems. DDT has also been known to cause premature birth in exposed pregnant women and has properties similar to estrogen that can disrupt hormones. Like PCB, it’s probably a carcinogen. As marine animals ingest and absorb these chemicals, the chemicals continue up the food chain and can eventually be passed along to humans.

Larger items can also be harmful to marine life. Turtles have been known to confuse floating plastic grocery bags for jellyfish and discarded fishing nets are especially risky for marine mammals. This discarded or lost fishing gear continues to catch or trap fish in a process known as ghost fishing. This fishing gear can include nets, traps, pots, and even fishing line and hooks and makes up about 10% of total ocean plastic, but a majority of the macro-plastics. These macro-plastics are defined as those pieces of plastic at least 20 mm in size. It’s estimated that about 30% of all fish are caught in the 1.4 billion pounds of ghost gear that ends up in the ocean each year. The plastic products in these nets can take 600 years to decompose. In the time it takes these nets to break down, they catch fish, whose carcasses then attract larger predators who then get caught in the net themselves. Over time, nets become heavy enough that they sink and allow bottom dwellers to feed on the net’s catch, reducing the weight of the net and allowing it to float back to the surface to repeat the process again. Even the largest of creatures are impacted by ghost fishing. 83% of North Atlantic right whales show signs of entanglement. Further, whales have been known to eat discarded nets, an event that ultimately causes their deaths. On top of this, animals aren’t the only items being caught by ghost nets: these nets also collect about 10% of all marine debris. This concentrates the debris into smaller areas. One study found 86% of the estimated 92.6 million pounds of mega-plastics in the great Pacific garbage patch to be made up of fishing nets while another estimated 70% of all ocean macro-plastics are fishing related.

Animals killed by ghost nets. Sources: ABC, EurekAlert, Fishing Booker, One Green Planet

The statistics surrounding the amount of plastic in our oceans are shocking. By the year 2050, it’s estimated that there will be more plastic in the sea than fish. However, this statistic was calculated prior to COVID-19- when efforts to increase ocean conservation, like limits on plastic straws, EPS foam were high. Now, our focus has shifted to virus protection and with masks widely available, we aren’t consciously keeping up with a single mask, but have a wide variety for each day of the week. This means masks are ending up in the ocean in alarming, but as of yet unquantified, numbers. Will the use and disposal, both conscious and unconscious, undo these conservation efforts?

The infographic below highlights a few pre-pandemic plastic statistics. Of the most concerning is the statistic stating that only half of all plastic made is used more than once. The infographic also points out that it can take a plastic bag up to 1,000 years to completely break down. This means masks could be washing up on our shores hundreds of years post-pandemic. Additionally, if the average American tosses 185 pounds of trash in a year, we threw away over 60 billion pounds of trash in 2019. That’s almost 261,000 blue whales (weighing 230,000 pounds each) and more than 10 times the amount of actual blue whales predicted to be in our oceans today. Worldwide, the amount of disposed plastic each year is enough to circle the globe four times and plastic production is still increasing.

Some of the many statistics surrounding ocean plastic

With the pandemic ongoing, it’s becoming clear that disposable masks are contributing to the problem of plastic waste. Studies have estimated global mask usage at 3 million every minute. That’s 129 billion masks used each month. In comparison, plastic bottles, a known contributor to the plastic waste problem, are used at a rate of 43 billion a month. Approximately 8 billion pounds of these end up in the ocean per year. However, unlike these bottles, masks cannot be recycled. This means that every single one of the used masks ends up as waste. It is estimated these masks may only take weeks to break down into nano-plastics given their starting makeup of nano-fibers, but these nano-particles remain in the environment as such for years to come. As of yet, no studies have been done to see exactly how these masks would break down in nature.

The pandemic has also created hesitations in general plastic recycling over concerns as to how the virus can be transmitted via these items. Given that only about 5–10% of produced plastics are recycled, this doesn’t create a huge backlog but does add to overall plastic waste. Unknowns about virus transmission also led to increased use of single-use plastics in general. In the wake of the pandemic, restaurants used disposable menus and dinnerware, and take-out orders took precedence over in-restaurant dining. All of these factors have caused an increased demand for single-use plastics.

Approximately 80% of ocean plastic originates on land. Most of this plastic travels down rivers as they make their way into the ocean. Sources of this trash include poor waste management strategies, fishing, tourist waste, and windblown micro- and macro-plastics. Additionally, stormwater runoff can carry trash from land into waterways. A 2017 study estimated that somewhere between 1.26 and 2.66 tons of plastic enter the ocean via rivers each year. Most of these rivers are in Asia and are responsible for about 67% of the trash entering the ocean via rivers each year.

The amount of plastic in the ocean is a reflection of how prevalent it is in our daily lives. As a material, plastic is cheap and versatile. Plastic is actually a broad term that encompasses a variety of polymers that are typically made using petroleum and natural gas. The below chart created by The Conversation depicts the popularity of these different polymers. The long-chain molecules that make up these materials are what give plastic its characteristic properties of strength and durability. Plastic was created by Wallace Carothers in the 1930s and became popular in the years to follow as World War II led to a scarcity of other materials. One of the first synthetic fibers to come from Carothers’ process was nylon. Nylon quickly became commercialized as a silk replacement for stockings during wartime silk was needed to aid in the war effort. A synthetic equivalent of natural rubber soon followed as rubber, too, became unavailable to the public because of the war. From there, the synthetics industry became of more interest to scientists and led to many of the plastics most common today.

Plastic has uses from textiles to furniture to dinnerware but is most often used in product packaging. In fact, packaging accounts for about 40% of all produced plastics. In 2013, a report was issued claiming that around 32% of plastic packaging became pollution, contaminating both land and sea. With each year, plastic seems to become more and more prolific. In the last decade, more plastic has been created than in the previous century combined. Worldwide, about 500 billion plastic bags are used each year and, on average, a piece of plastic is only used for about 15 minutes before it has finished serving its purpose. In addition to plastic bags, beverage containers are another large source of plastic use. 14% of all litter is from beverage containers, and this doesn’t include separately finding caps and labels. Producing these bottles is another factor that should be considered in evaluating the environmental impact; it requires six times as much water to produce a plastic water bottle than the water that fits in said bottle.

Another 20% of plastic use comes from the building and construction industries. Most of the plastics used here come in the form of PVC pipe and polyurethane foam. PVC is valued in construction for its lightweight, ability to be glued instead of soldered or welded, and resistance to the chlorine typically found in the water that flows through these pipes. However, it’s this same chlorine-resistant property that keeps PVC from being recycled, meaning all of it ends up as waste. Large amounts of plastics are also used in automobile industries with the European Union estimating that 16% of a car’s weight is made of plastic. Synthetic textiles make up another large group of plastic use. As of 2018, over 70 million tons of thermoplastics per year are used to make clothing and carpets. Approximately 90% of this is produced in Asia. Clothing made from these materials are prized for their abilities to stretch, wick moisture, and for their breathability but come at the expense of naturally occurring fibers like cotton and wool that had previously been used in the manufacture of clothing. Like a majority of other plastic products, these textiles are not heavily recycled and we’re buying them at higher and higher rates each year. The Environmental Protection estimated that slightly over 15% of 2017 textile waste was recycled and in the last 20 years Americans have doubled the amount of clothing thrown away each year. In 2018, 17 million tons of textile waste, 5.8% of that created, made its way into landfills. Of the total textiles produced, 84% end up in landfills. Once in these landfills, they can take over 200 years to decompose.

Clothes bound for a landfill. Source: The Guardian

In addition to its durability and versatility, much of plastic’s popularity derives from its cost. Plastic grocery bags only cost about one cent to produce, while paper bags are around 4.5 cents a bag, and compostable plastics are somewhere between eight and 10 cents. However, the argument gets even more complex than a simple cost consideration. While paper bags seem to be the clear choice with respect to the environment given their shorter decomposition time and creation from a renewable resource, the answer is actually far more complex. The production of paper bags uses more energy and produces more air and water pollution in the production process than does plastic. Paper, too, takes up much more space in landfills, but is recycled at a rate 4 times as high as that of plastic bags and decomposes in about a month as compared to up to 1,000 years. Additionally, while glass, paper, and aluminum are a much better alternative when compared by weight, the small amounts of plastic used in each of these packaging scenarios means that plastic can go a lot further than these other materials.

The cost of plastic is also a reason why we see it on so many of our supermarket shelves. Because of plastic’s affordability, food processing facilities have been packaging increasing numbers of food items in plastic. Most notably, cucumbers. If you take a stroll down the produce aisle, you’ll notice that unlike a majority of the other produce items, English cucumbers are individually wrapped in a thin plastic film. Packagers claim that wrapping these cucumbers extends their shelf life from three days to 14. They make similar claims for meat. When meat is processed at the store level and placed in a plastic-wrapped foam container it can typically last around four days but when it’s more centrally processed and vacuum-sealed in a plastic film, this meat lasts closer to a month. While this plastic packaging is making progress in reducing food waste, where do we draw the line? The use of this type of packaging in steak is likely worthwhile given the estimated savings of $668 in environmental costs per ton of steak, but is this same type of packaging truly necessary in more shelf-stable foods? And how long do we really need each of these foods to last?

A supermarket aisle filled with plastic. Source: The Beijinger

Recycling plastics, while once profitable, is now starting to become a burden to areas with recycling programs. Before 2018, the US exported recyclables to China to the tune of several billion dollars but a 2018 Chinese policy named Operation National Sword greatly limited the items China accepted for processing. This led to the global reduction of recyclable plastic exports to China by 99%. In the wake of this, US recycling operations took a major hit, and items previously sent overseas began to pile up and make their way to landfills, costing recycling companies money. As highlighted in the infographic, the recycling of grocery bags, one of the more common macro-plastics found in our oceans, costs almost as much per ton as it does to produce a ton using raw materials. With little to no profit, there is equally little effort to improve and expand recycling operations.

A small town in Franklin, New Hampshire went from selling recyclables at $6 a ton to paying $125 a ton to dispose of them or $68 a ton to incinerate them. On the other end of the population spectrum, researchers estimate that New York City could save over $340 million by ending their recycling programs and disposing of these items as general waste. Despite this, the EPA is still a proponent of such recycling programs. In a 2019 guide, they stated a goal of “charting a path toward zero waste.” Contrary to this goal of zero waste, a 2014 Japanese examination showed that the optimal recycling rate for developing countries, in terms of both environmental and fiscal criteria, is only around 10%. This is because of the time and monetary investment, as well as pollution in the form of carbon emissions and processing by-products, involved in collecting, transporting, and processing these items. The below chart depicts the common methods of plastic waste disposal in the US. These methods include recycling, combustion (burning) where the energy produced can be turned into power, and disposal at a landfill.

This chart shows that, in terms of relative proportions, each of these methods, post the years immediately following implementation, have remained relatively consistent. Recycling stays around 8%, combustion around 15%, and landfill disposal around 75%. While the proportions remained relatively constant, you can see that the overall amount of plastic waste has increased dramatically. The total amount of waste increased by an average of 141% a year between 1960 and 2000 and then by an average of 98% a year between 2000 and 2018. The largest increase took place in the years between 1980 and 1990 where plastic disposal increased by an average of 262% a year. That’s an average of an additional 2 billion pounds of plastic waste per year over this period.

Ultimately, the best answer is really in using less. Aside from actual production costs, a 2014 report estimated that the annual environmental cost of plastic use is $75 billion. Fortunately, the plastic industry does care about its environmental impact and is working on applications that require less material. Not only does this limit the total amount of plastics being produced, but it lowers the weight of these items in turn lowering the environmental cost of transportation.

In terms of masks, we can keep these from becoming a plastic pollutant by limiting the use of disposable masks and switching to reusable, washable cloth masks when possible. If the demand for these plastic masks decreases, so will the amount produced. As we don’t know how much longer masks will be part of our “new normal,” there is also room for research in the area of biodegradable masks. This potential would provide the same benefits of plastic, disposable masks, without the risks of pollution.

At the end of the day, it’s about balancing greenhouse gas emissions and air and water pollution. Unfortunately, with our current technology, there is no real answer that limits both, but with continued research, better options may exist in the future. Until then, we can each do our part by being conscious and reducing our plastic use. This is especially true of single-use plastics, including masks. By reducing our plastic use, and ensuring that we’re properly disposing of these items once we’re done, we can keep them from ending up in the ocean. Additionally, take the time to pick up litter and place it in proper waste receptacles when possible and make others aware of the issues involving our plastic consumption. If we all play our part, we might prevent plastic like disposable masks from outnumbering the fish in the ocean during our lifetimes.