Face masks are piling up as litter in the wake of lockdowns in Sydney and Melbourne, and these unrecyclable objects are now harming wildlife.
Keep Australia Beautiful CEO Val Southam told The New Daily that there had been a significant increase in face masks appearing as litter since Sydney and Melbourne went into lockdown from June.
“There’s an uptick, obviously, every time there’s a ruling,” she said.
Researchers from the University of Southern Denmark (SDU) found that every month the world uses 129 billion face masks – or, three million every minute – and most of them are disposable.
Although masks aren’t new, the situation in Australia has grown worse in recent months.
“I remember reading about all the dramas other countries had with masks and litter, and we hardly had any COVID at the time,” Ms Southam said.
“Now we’re in the same boat.”
These masks pose two risks.
For one, animals can become entangled in the elastic ear straps, and therefore people should always cut them with scissors before throwing away masks.
Ms Southam said birds and fish are already getting caught in the elastic straps of discarded face masks, similar to how marine life has been getting trapped in plastic six-pack rings for decades.
Earlier in 2021, the RSPCA called on people to “snip the straps” when throwing away old masks.
On top of that, disposable face masks typically break down into microparticles faster and more easily than plastic bags.
“We know that, like other plastic debris, disposable masks may also accumulate and release harmful chemical and biological substances, such as bisphenol A, heavy metals, as well as pathogenic micro-organisms,” SDU pollution researcher Elvis Genbo Xu said.
The dyes used in manufacturing – typically in countries with more lax environmental protection standards than Australia – can also seep into waterways or soil.
Recycling not an option
The only real solution to combat face-mask litter is to wear reusable ones whenever possible.
The main reason is because these masks are designed to stop the spread of COVID-19, and handling them during the recycling process poses a very real contamination risk.
“You wouldn’t really want anyone handling them,” Ms Southam said.
There are also no official guidelines for face mask recycling, anyway.
“You’ve got all those other bits in them, like the bits of metal on the nose piece and the wire, that’s just going to be a contaminant if we tried to put them through a paper recycling facility, for example,” Ms Southam said.
As mask mandates begin to ease in some states, experts hope the issue of mask disposal will become more manageable.