The Covid-19 environmental disaster
The covid-19 pandemic was a catastrophe of the 21st century, not only for humanity, but for planet Earth as a whole. Due to the epidemiological situation, people in many countries are still obliged to observe a mask regime. As a result, in Russia alone, about 10 million disposable masks are now being sent to the trash every day, and it becomes an ecological time bomb, because they decompose for up to 500 years.
The fact is that modern masks are made of synthetic nonwoven fabric, which can be a potential source of microplastic for the environment. Microplastics include polypropylene (PP), polyurethane (PU), polyacrylonitrile (PAN), polystyrene (PS), polycarbonate (PC), polyethylene (PE) and polyethylene terephthalate (PET) most of which have been decompose for decades or even hundreds of years.
In 2021, a study was conducted by a team of scientists from China to study the release of microplastics from different types of new and used disposable masks and its impact on the environment. 18 different brands of masks were used for the study. As a result, it was found that fibers and microplastic fragments were released in all groups, but the intensity of microplastic release was influenced by factors such as: UV radiation, abrasion, weathering.
In addition, microplastics from masks is able to capture and attract microplastics from the air, increasing its concentration in environments such as water. This can pose a significant threat to aquatic dwellers. Microplastics can be accumulated and transported in plankton to fish and birds down the food chain. Interestingly, microplastic has already been found in human colon and placenta.
Because of the above, the competent disposal of disposable masks is becoming a global problem. In Russia, scientists from Novosibirsk propose to recycle personal protective equipment into useful raw materials using an electroplasma furnace. The result is synthesis gas and an already safe, glazed slag that can be used in construction.
In the UK, TCG heats disposable masks, gowns and curtains to 300°C, sterilizes them and recycles 300,000 defective masks each month. The result is 1 m long blocks that are 99.6% polypropylene and consist of approximately 10,000 masks. They can be used to make such things as plastic chairs, buckets, and toolboxes.
In addition, scientists in different countries recommend replacing disposable masks with reusable ones whenever possible, although it has been found that their barrier function is often much lower than that of disposable ones.
- Chen X, Chen X, Liu Q, Zhao Q, Xiong X, Wu C. Used disposable face masks are significant sources of microplastics to environment. Environ Pollut. 2021 Sep 15;285:117485. doi: 10.1016/j.envpol.2021.117485. Epub 2021 May 31. PMID: 34087638.
- Wang, Z., An, C., Chen, X., Lee, K., Zhang, B., & Feng, Q. (2021). Disposable masks release microplastics to the aqueous environment with exacerbation by natural weathering. Journal of Hazardous Materials, 417, 126036. doi:10.1016/j.jhazmat.2021.126036