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1.56bn face masks entered oceans in 2020

1 Feb 2021 By SHADDAD AL MUSALMY

An estimated 1.56bn face masks may have entered the world’s oceans in 2020, resulting in an additional 4,680- 6,240 metric tonnes of marine plastic pollution, according to a report. Entitled ‘Masks on the Beach: The Impact of COVID-19 on Marine Plastic Pollution’, the report was released by Hong-Kong-based marine conservation organisation OceansAsia.

According to the report, these masks will take as long as 450 years to break down, slowly turning into micro plastics while negatively impacting marine wildlife and ecosystems. The report used a global production estimate of 52bn masks being manufactured in 2020, a conservative loss rate of three per cent, and the average weight of three to four grams for a single-use polypropylene surgical face mask to arrive at the estimate.

“The 1.56bn face masks that will likely have entered our oceans in 2020 are just the tip of the iceberg. The 4,680 to 6,240 metric tonnes of face masks are just a small fraction of the estimated eight to 12mn metric tonnes of plastic that enter our oceans each year,” said Dr Teale Phelps Bondaroff, director of research at OceansAsia and lead author of the report.

“It is critical that we work to reduce our use of single-use plastics, and we all have a role to play. There are reusable and sustainable options for almost every single single-use plastic item. Please wear a reusable mask, unless absolutely necessary, and be sure to dispose of all masks responsibly,” Dr Bondaroff added.

In the sultanate, the Environment Society of Oman (ESO) recently launched a campaign – It’s Time. The year-long initiative is designed to promote the adoption of environmentally conscious community behaviours across the country focusing on three key issues affecting the sultanate’s environment and its communities – litter, single-use plastics and recycling.

H H Sayyida Tania bint Shabib al Said, president of ESO, told Muscat Daily that discarded face masks are now a common sight along the beaches of Oman. “These masks, which are plastic, are a small part of a much wider issue for our marine environment. We are consuming too much plastic in our society. Attempts to reduce our universal reliance on single-use plastics have been dealt a heavy blow by COVID-19,” she said.

“Understandable hygiene concerns have triggered a significant increase in plastic consumption with a collapse in the oil market making plastic cheaper than ever to produce. The volume of plastic waste we find discarded as a result is having a significant impact on both our environmental and human health and must be addressed.”

According to H H Sayyida Tania, the Ministerial Decision 23/2020 to ban single-use shopping bags from January 2021 is a positive start, and that there are reusable and sustainable options for almost every item of single-use plastic. “A great place to start is by wearing a reusable mask whenever possible and to dispose of masks responsibly.”

In response to the growing crisis, ESO launched the It’s Time campaign which aims to encourage the adoption of environmentally conscious behaviours across Oman.

“We hope the campaign will serve to demonstrate the size and scale of the three key issues we are targeting – litter, single-use plastics and recycling; provide a platform to share encouraging messaging; and serve as a call to action for communities to join us in cleaning up Oman,” said H H Sayyida Tania.

ESO is committed to working hard in the pursuit of encouraging the adoption of environmentally sustainable behaviours across Oman, but she noted that it cannot do so without the support of the community. “I would encourage everyone to think about individual actions they can take in their own lives to positively impact Oman’s environment, because together we can make a difference – It’s Time,” she added.

Plastic consumption, which has been steadily rising for years, increased significantly as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. “Hygiene concerns and greater reliance on take-away food has led to increased use of plastics, particularly plastic packaging,” said Gary Stokes, director of operations at OceansAsia.

The use of personal protective equipment (PPE), in particular face masks, has become a common tool used in preventing the spread of the virus, with many jurisdictions mandating the wearing of masks in public. The production of PPE has expanded in an attempt to meet skyrocketing demand. Consequently, PPE waste has also increased dramatically.

Single-use face masks are made from a variety of meltblown plastics and are difficult to recycle due to both composition and risk of contamination and infection. They enter oceans when they are littered, when waste management systems are inadequate or non-existent, or when these systems become overwhelmed due to increased volumes of waste.

Marine plastic pollution is devastating the world’s oceans, Stokes informed. “Plastic pollution kills an estimated 100,000 marine mammals and turtles, over a million seabirds, and even greater numbers of fish, invertebrates and other animals each year. It also negatively impacts fisheries and the tourism industry, and costs the global economy an estimated US$13bn per year.”

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