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Disposable face masks drive huge rise in protective equipment waste

David Mills, December 14, 2021 6:30PM Kids News

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Discarded face masks are washing up on beaches all around the world, including this one in Mexico on November 22. Picture: Getty Images media_cameraDiscarded face masks are washing up on beaches all around the world, including this one in Mexico on November 22. Picture: Getty Images

environment

Reading level: green

They are the item that defined* the Covid-19 pandemic, and in many ways saved us from it, but they’ve also become a massive problem in their own right.

The number of face masks found in litter globally has skyrocketed* more than 80-fold because of the Covid-19 pandemic, a new study has found.

Citizen scientists in 11 countries, including Australia, used a litter-logging* app called Litterati to quantify the increase they have seen in discarded* personal protective equipment (PPE) since early 2020.

Besides an 84-times increase in dropped masks, the study also revealed gloves and wipes had more than doubled in litter volumes.

BONDI COVID media_cameraMedical personnel put their personal protective equipment in the rubbish at the end of their shift at a testing clinic a Sydney’s Bondi Beach. Picture: Dylan K Coker

The problem was most widely reported in Britain, where PPE now accounts for more than 5 per cent of all litter.

Australia reported less overall PPE litter than most nations in the study, but more than New Zealand, Sweden and The Netherlands.

The authors of the study, which has been published in Nature Sustainability*, said the environmental impacts of PPE litter should be considered in future government pandemic responses, as the items damaged the environment in a number of ways: mask straps entangled wildlife both on land and at sea, the plastic elements broke down into harmful microplastics*, and their component* chemicals leached toxins into waterways.

Clean Up Australia chairman Pip Kiernan said the organisation would be using the sheer number of dropped masks as a call to action for the next Clean Up Australia Day on Sunday, March 6 next year.

An obviously worn-out mouth and nose protection mask lies media_cameraSingle-use face masks are a global issue two years into the pandemic – these discarded masks are pictured on the streets of Naples, Italy, but could end up in stormwater drains and washed out to sea. Picture: Getty Images

“We don’t want the pandemic to have this huge environmental legacy*, and we can all take action,” she said.

So why are we seeing so many masks dropped on city footpaths and in parks? Mask-wearing suggests conscientiousness* and civic-mindedness*, which are not attributes* associated with people who litter.

But people could be reluctant to pick up someone else’s stray mask to put in the bin – even if they regularly collect other forms of litter when they see it – because of the direct link to Covid-19.

“A certain number are just being dropped in error,” Ms Kiernan said. “We all need to keep track and be super vigilant*.”

She said businesses could do their part by providing staff with reusable cloth masks, rather than handing out yet more disposable* masks.

“It’s not likely that mask wearing is going to go away any time soon,” she said. “When things settle with this pandemic, we’ll see more people wearing masks when they’ve got colds and flu, as we’ve seen in other parts of the world.”

Pip Kiernan media_cameraPip Kiernan from Clean Up Australia has urged people to make mask litter a special focus of Clean Up Australia Day on March 6 next year. Picture: AAP Image

Mask mandates* vary between states and territories in Australia. NSW wound back its mask rules on December 16, now requiring them only to be worn in high risk settings, such as on public transport and in healthcare facilities and airports. This brings NSW in line with Tasmania, South Australia and Western Australia.

Victoria was set to follow but decided to stick with its stricter rules, which require masks in shops as well as high-risk settings, until at least January 21 because of the new Omicron variant of the virus.

Chemist Warehouse director Mario Tascone said the chain was still seeing “strong sales” for both disposable and reusable masks.

Registrations for Clean Up Australia Day events are now open. The website has information about the events being held near you.

GLOSSARY

  • defined: described or represented a feature of a particular event or time
  • skyrocketed: increased greatly and/or very rapidly
  • logging: act of keeping a log, recording, counting, accounting for something
  • discarded: thrown away, binned, abandoned, dropped from use, gotten rid of
  • sustainability: maintaining healthy environmental, social and economic systems now and forever
  • microplastics: small plastic pieces less than 5mm long and harmful to ocean and aquatic life
  • components: parts, pieces, elements, ingredients, constituents
  • legacy: what is left, what remains to be inherited by others, what is passed down
  • conscientiousness: diligence, application, wanting to do one’s work or duty well
  • civic-mindedness: caring about and contributing positively to the community
  • attributes: qualities, features, traits, characteristics
  • vigilant: watchful, on the lookout, observant, keen-eyed
  • disposable: throwaway, single-use, not designed or made to be kept or used long-term
  • mandates: official orders, government-issued rules or commands applying to everyone

EXTRA READING

Clever solution to massive mask waste problem

Even premiers must follow the rules

How to stay healthy and happy during Covid

QUICK QUIZ

  1. When is Clean Up Australia Day?
  2. What could businesses do to reduce the use of disposable masks?
  3. Where was the PPE litter problem most widely reported worldwide?
  4. What are the main issues with mask litter?
  5. The study found dropped masks had increased how many times since the pandemic began?

LISTEN TO THIS STORY

CLASSROOM ACTIVITIES
1. Reducing mask waste
Work with a partner and brainstorm together three ways that you can think of to reduce the waste and littering being caused by disposable masks and PPE equipment. Be as creative as you can and you might even think of a new invention to help masks be more environmentally friendly. List your three ideas and share with the class.

1.
2.
3.

Time: allow 25 minutes to complete this activity
Curriculum Links: English; Design and Technologies; Critical and Creative Thinking

2. Extension
A lot of people will pick up rubbish if they see it while walking by. But many aren’t as willing to pick up a used mask. How can we encourage people to a) not drop or litter with the masks and b) pick them up and put them in the bin when you see them flying around.

Think of a jingle or line to use in an advertising campaign to encourage the points above.

Time: allow 15 minutes to complete this activity
Curriculum Links: English; Critical and Creative Thinking

VCOP ACTIVITY
What happens next?
Imagine this story becomes part of an animated series made up of three cartoons. The three cartoons tell the complete story and this article is only Part 1. Think about what the rest of the story could be and draw the next two cartoons that tell the story.

Extra Reading in environment