A study out of the University of Portsmouth in the UK has found that instances of littering with face masks and other PPE surged by 9000 percent during the first seven months of the coronavirus pandemic, and may have even helped the virus to spread more rapidly.
BBC News reports that the study, published in the journal Nature Sustainability, concluded around two million masks were collected as litter from 11 countries. This was just a snapshot of the situation in the wider world.
The study found that Covid-related litter began its “exponential increase” in March 2020, as the global pandemic was announced, and in conjunction with governments worldwide introducing restrictions including mandatory face mask-wearing.
“Overall the study shows the impact that legislating the use of items such as masks can have on their occurrence as litter,” Dr. Keiron Roberts, lead researcher with the University of Portsmouth, said, adding “We found that littered masks had an exponential increase from March 2020, resulting in an 84-fold increase by October 2020.”
“We need to avoid this pandemic litter becoming a lasting legacy,” Roberts added.
The study was conducted in Australia, Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Spain, Sweden, the UK, and the US using the litter collecting app Litterati.
The research further noted that the UK has the “highest overall proportion of masks, gloves and wipes as litter.”
In three three months of August, September and October 2020, masks made up more than 5% of all litter in the country, with wipes and gloves accounting for a further 1.5%, according to the study.
The findings confirm anecdotal accounts of the masks littering the streets in cities and the countryside.
The researchers have urged that if government are to continue mask mandates, they “must be accompanied with education campaigns to limit their release into the environment,” because the masks can act as a ‘vector’ to spread coronavirus.
Professor Steve Fletcher, from the University of Portsmouth noted that “Without better disposal practices, an environmental disaster is looming.”
“The majority of masks are manufactured from long-lasting plastic materials, and if discarded can persist in the environment for hundreds of years. This means they can have a number of impacts on the environment and people,” Fletcher urged.
A previous report by environmental group OceansAsia found that 1.5 billion face masks are expected to be dumped into the sea in just one year.
According to the group, the masks will contribute an estimated 7,000 tons of plastic to the oceans which are thought to already contain 5.25 trillion macro and micro pieces of plastic, and 46,000 larger pieces in every square mile of water.
The masks will also eventually become micro plastics and have the potential to enter the food chain.
Divers in the Philippines have discovered single use face masks and other PPE covering precious coral reefs and being consumed by marine life as the impact of lockdown takes its toll on the environment.
Environmental scientists have warned that such plastic pollution is shrinking penises and making men infertile, meaning most of them won’t be able to produce sperm by 2045.