Estimated 1.56 billion face masks will have entered oceans in 2020 - OceansAsia Report For Immediate Release: December 7, 2020

Our oceans will be flooded with an estimated 1.56 billion face masks in 2020 says a report released today by Hong-Kong-based marine conservation organization OceansAsia. This will result in an additional 4,680 to 6,240 metric tonnes of marine plastic pollution, says the report, entitled “Masks on the Beach: The Impact of COVID-19 on Marine Plastic Pollution.” These masks will take as long as 450 years to break down, slowly turning into  microplastics, all the while negatively impacting marine wildlife and ecosystems.

The report used a global production estimate of 52 billion masks being manufactured in 2020, a conservative loss rate of 3%, and the average weight of 3 to 4 grams for a single-use polypropylene surgical face mask to arrive at the estimate. 

“The 1.56 billion face masks that will likely enter our oceans in 2020 are just the tip of the iceberg,” says Dr. Teale Phelps Bondaroff, Director of Research for OceansAsia, and lead author of the report. “The 4,680 to 6,240 metric tonnes of face masks are just a small fraction of the estimated 8 to 12 million metric tonnes of plastic that enter our oceans each year.”

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,” says Gary Stokes, Director of Operations of OceansAsia. “Meanwhile, a number of measures designed to reduce plastic consumption, like single-use plastic bag bans, have been delayed, paused, or rolled back.”

The use of 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, and 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 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.”

The report asks people to wear reusable masks whenever possible, dispose of masks responsibly and reduce their overall consumption of single-use plastic. It also calls on governments to:

  • Implement policies designed to encourage the use of reusable masks, such as releasing guidelines regarding the proper manufacture and use of reusable masks.
  • Foster innovation and the development of sustainable alternatives to single-use plastic masks.
  • Discourage littering by increasing fines, and educate the public about responsible ways to dispose of masks. 
  • Repair and improve waste management systems to reduce losses and spillage. 

“It is critical that we work to reduce our use of single-use plastics, and we all have a role to play,” says Dr. Phelps Bondaroff. “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.