Unmasking the problem: disposable face masks and the environment

Neave Moore, Kayla Mclean & Ella Doyle

Even with vaccinations rates climbing and freedoms slowing returning to locked down communities, masks are here to stay.

Public transport, sport stadiums, restaurants, and indoor venues all require a mask as a condition of entry.

The specific requirements of the mask mandate have changed with every press conference, but regardless the nation is used to the common accessory that the face mask has become.

Face mask pollution at Burleigh. By Neave Moore.

Over the last 18 months, people got creative with their reusable face masks, with organisation logos for workplaces, quotes and cartoons, and simple coloured patterns.

 Online and in-person stores are full of unique facemasks with customisable requests frequent in these companies.

Surgical or cloth, disposable or reusable, masks are here to stay, which is bad news for the environment.

In the world of reusable facemasks, individuals can buy bulk packages half the price of a single reusable mask.

Toby Hutcheon is the Campaign Manager at the Boomerang Alliance, a collective of environmental organisations working to reduce pollution.

“It is estimated that there is around 150 billion pieces of PPE (personal protective equipment) being used around the world every single month,” he said.

“Most of that is disposable, so it is used once then thrown away.”

Toby Hutcheon, Boomerang Alliance

“A lot will go to waste; a lot will go to litter.”

1.5 million face masks are thrown away each day in Greater Brisbane, roughly 1050 facemasks a minute, or 22 per person per month.

These facemasks, if not properly destroyed, end up in Australian waterways and forests, as well as polluting our streets, parks, and playgrounds.

While reusable cloth masks are considered to be a greener choice, neither cloth nor plastic masks are biodegradable and both can harm native wildlife on land and in the water.

The United State of America’s Water Conservancy found 300,000 disposable facemasks clogging their waterways after 12 months, many of which had passed through and reached the ocean.

Face masks can trap the movement of wildlife, suffocate marine life, and remain in landfill without breaking down.

However, there are proper methods to dispose of these masks promoted by Australia’s Federal Government and leaders of organisations around the world.

UK organisation, the Surrey Environment Partnership, produced a short tutorial on how to properly dispose of surgical facemasks.

Face masks may keep us safe but, with proper disposal, we must also keep our environment safe from them.

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