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More than 1.5 billion masks have been dumped into the oceans in 2020

Updated: Sep 18, 2021

But hey, at least we banned those plastic straws. Of the estimated 52 billion masks manufactured globally in 2020, it's believed 1.56 billion will enter our oceans this year, resulting in an additional 4,680 to 6,240 metric tonnes of marine plastic pollution according to a recent study by OceansAsia. The report notes global sales of face masks surged from around $800 million in 2019 to $166 billion in 2020. “Once plastic enters the marine environment, it’s very difficult to move," said Dr. Teale Phelps Bondaroff, director of research for OceansAsia. Masks are made with polypropylene, which Bondaroff describes as thin fibers of plastic. These tiny pieces of plastic can remain in the ocean for hundreds of years, threatening fish and even polluting the air.

"The fact that we are starting to find masks that are breaking up indicates that this is a real problem, that microplastics are being produced by masks. The 1.56 billion face masks that have entered our oceans in 2020 are there for the long run. They will remain in the ocean for 450 years or more, and they’ll break into smaller pieces.” he added.

Dr. Teale Phelps Bondaroff. 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 our oceans,” says Gary Stokes, Operations Director of OceansAsia. “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 $13 billion USD per year.” he added. The mask plastic pollution represents a small percentage of the overall plastic pollution which enters our oceans and rivers on a yearly basis, with most of it coming from China which is the world's greatest polluter, however it represents a very serious and growing problem to marine life and ecosystems.

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