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'Environmental disaster' looming as face-mask litter sharply increases in Canada, other countries: study

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The full impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the environment will take years to fully understand, but a new study from the University of Portsmouth in the U.K. is giving a first look at just how much litter stemmed from the first wave.

Published Thursday in the journal Nature Sustainability, the study “Increased personal protective equipment litter as a result of COVID measures,” compared and analyzed data from the “COVID-19 Government Response Tracker” from Oxford University and the litter collection app “Litterati,” both open-source databases.

Researchers took data from 11 countries - Canada, France, Germany, Belgium, Spain, the U.K., the U.S., the Netherlands, Sweden, Australia and New Zealand - and mapped their policy responses to the pandemic, including things like lockdown severity and mask policies. They then created a “base line” of litter proportions in the 11 study countries from Sept. 2019 through the first six months of the pandemic.

The study found that face mask litter increased 9,000 per cent from March to October 2020, and there was a direct link between national legislation and discarded waste that included masks and other personal protective equipment (PPE).

“We found that littered masks had an exponential increase from March 2020, resulting in an 84-fold increase by October 2020,” lead researcher Keiron Roberts said in a release. “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.”

The U.K. showed the highest overall proportion of masks, gloves and wipes as litter, with masks accounting for five per cent of all litter from August to October 2020, and gloves and wipes accounting for 1.5 per cent.

The Netherlands, however, showed the proportion of masks, gloves and wipes did not exceed one per cent of the total examined litter, except for gloves which reached three per cent in April 2020.

Sweden had several months when no COVID-19 related litter was recorded.

Canada’s data showed an emergence of mask, glove and wipe litter around and after the announcement of the pandemic.

Germany and the U.S. had a similar pattern to Canada for masks, but the study notes that gloves and wipes were present as littler prior to the pandemic.

Through the course of the study, researchers established some patterns that affected the amount of litter being discarded. In January to March 2020, countries struggling to find enough PPE had guidance to physically distance.

In March to May 2020, the most severe lockdowns were observed, leading to mask litter being low, yet on the rise.

In June to October 2020, the WHO recommended the use of masks, following which many lockdown measures were relaxed, the study said, leading to a dramatic increase in mask litter as people exercised their increasing freedoms.

Glove litter increased in the initial stages of the pandemic, but fell after the introduction of mask policies, the study notes.

“In April 2020, it was beginning to appear that there were some small positives in the decrease in human activity caused by lockdown, with improvements in air quality and water quality. Reduced human activity also saw reports of animals coming back to towns and cities,” Roberts said in the release.

“At the same time, reports of masks and gloves appearing on beaches and streets, where they hadn’t been before, started to emerge. As COVID-19 spread, so did the news reports of this new type of litter,” he continued.

As data collection in the field became increasingly difficult due to lockdowns, researchers turned to the online databases which allowed them to compare litter trends on a monthly basis, matching up WHO announcements and national policy and lockdown restrictions to see how those actions 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,” Roberts said.

The two national policies examined by the study were introduction of lockdown travel restrictions and mask-wearing.

As countries legislating mask use increased, their appearance in litter also increased, the study notes.

Gloves showed a “significant increase in prevalence with the announcement of the pandemic,” which corresponds with most countries in the study implementing what the study calls “lockdown level 3.”

The study posits glove litter is due citizen’s personal actions to prevent surface cross contamination, but an increasing awareness and communication of the role of aerosols in the initials months of the pandemic may have shifted the use of PPE away from gloves towards masks in line with WHO advice.

LONG-TERM EFFECTS

Another researcher in the study and professor at the University of Portsmouth Steve Fletcher said in the release “despite millions of people being told to use face masks, little guidance was given on how to dispose of them or recycle them safely. Without better disposal practices, an environmental disaster is looming.”

Fletcher said the majority of masks are manufactured from long-lasting plastic materials and, if discarded carelessly, can stay in the environment for “decades to hundreds of years.”

The study outlined several ways the litter from the COVID-19 pandemic affects the environment. Short term, if masks and other PPE enter sewers they can cause potential blockages which affects infrastructure, plus the potential for litter to act as a viral vector to transmit the coronavirus within the first few hours or days if discarded by an infected person.

Medium-term, litter can get entangled and choke large animals, and if eaten can cause internal complications and even death. Wherever litter lands can smother smaller organisms and plant life.

Long-term, the researchers point out all the factors from short and medium-term concerns will compound, with the “addition of becoming a transmission route for other pollutants.” The researchers pointed out that if the litter is made from plastic, it will eventually break down into micro-plastics and have the potential to enter the food chain.

“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,” Roberts said in the release. “We need to avoid this pandemic litter becoming a lasting legacy.”

The researchers are urging world governments to put in place policies and legislation for the proper disposal of face masks when making them mandatory.

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