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Face mask litter jumped by 9,000% from March to October 2020

New research from the University of Portsmouth has found that face mask litter has increased by 9,000 percent from March to October 2020. By identifying direct links between national legislations and the occurrence of discarded waste, including face masks and other protective equipment, this study highlights the environmental impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and urges governments to put in place policies and legislation for the disposal of littered masks when making the wearing of them mandatory. 

 “The negative impacts of COVID-19 on our daily lives are well known. 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,” said study lead author Dr. Keiron Roberts, a lecturer in Sustainability and the Built Environment at the University of Portsmouth.

“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. National lockdowns made it incredibly difficult to go out and visit these places to gather evidence of what were anecdotal accounts.”

Using information from online databases such as the  COVID-19 Government Response Tracker and a litter collection app called Litterati, Dr. Roberts and his colleagues have found that over two million pieces of COVID-related litter were collected across 11 countries during the first six months of the pandemic.

“Overall the study shows the impact that legislating the use of items such as masks can have on their occurrence as litter. We found that littered masks had an exponential increase from March 2020, resulting in an 84-fold increase by October 2020. 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,” said Dr. Roberts.

According to the researchers, mask littering has short, medium, and long-term impacts. While in the short term, they can act as potential viral vectors, and cause blockages if they enter sewers, and in the medium-term they can affect animals that might eat them, in the long-term, littered items can eventually become microplastics and potentially 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,” Dr. Roberts concluded.

The study is published in the journal Nature Sustainability.    

By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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