Report: Over 1.5 Billion Masks to Pollute Ocean This Year

In this photo taken on May 13, 2020, Gary Stokes, founder of the environmental group Oceans Asia, poses with discarded face masks he found on a beach in the residential area of Discovery Bay on the outlying Lantau island in Hong Kong. - Surgical masks are washing up in growing …
Anthony Wallace/AFP/Getty Images

Over one billion of the 52 billion masks produced in 2020 will pollute the world’s oceans, warns a report published by an environmental group out of Hong Kong.

OceansAsia said the masks will both contaminate oceans with plastic and harm already vulnerable marine wildlife.

“Single-use face masks are made from a variety of meltblown plastics and are difficult to recycle due to both composition and risk of contamination and infection,” OceansAsia’s report states. “These masks enter our oceans when they are littered or otherwise improperly discarded, when waste management systems are inadequate or non-existent, or when these systems become overwhelmed due to increased volumes of waste.”

The report estimates nearly 7,000 tons of plastic could pollute the ocean and may take roughly 450 years to break down.

“This plastic does not ‘go away,’ but rather accumulates, breaking up into smaller and smaller pieces. Annually, it is estimated that marine plastic pollution kills 100,000 marine mammals and turtles, over a million seabirds, and even greater numbers of fish, invertebrates, and other marine life,” the report says. “Plastic pollution also profoundly impacts coastal communities, fisheries, and economies. Conservative estimates suggest that it could cost the global economy $13 billion USD per year, and lead to a 1-5% decline in ecosystem services, at a value of between $500 to $2,500 billion USD.”

The report also highlights various animals that have died due to masks. In September, a penguin was found dead on a Brazilian beach with a mask wrapped up inside its stomach, according to a local marine conservation organization, Instituto Argonauta.

“The consequences of the large number of people who frequented the beaches of the North Coast of São Paulo on the extended holiday of September 7 may have cost the life of a Magellan penguin, whose cause of death is linked to a mask that was found inside his stomach,” read a statement from the non-profit.

The report offers recommendations that include wearing reusable, washable cloth masks “whenever possible.”

To prevent ocean pollution, OceansAsia suggests wearing reusable cloth masks if possible.

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