“We are now seeing the effect of the outbreak on the environment,” an environmentalist says.
The COVID-19 pandemic is taking lives, inconveniencing millions and wreaking havoc with the global economy. It’s also contributing to plastic pollution in places like Hong Kong.
Countless surgical and N95 respirator masks that local people use to protect themselves from the novel coronavirus are discarded improperly, which means large numbers of these masks end up on beaches and in the sea. Once there, they pose a further threat to marine creatures that may mistake them for food or could get entangled in them.
On Hong Kong’s small and uninhabited Soko Islands a conservationist recently counted 70 discarded masks on a 100m stretch of a beach. A week later, he discovered another 30 masks there. On other beaches around Hong Kong plastic pollution from face masks has reached similar levels.
“That was quite alarming for us,” the conservationist, Gary Stokes, who founded the environmental group Oceans Asia, told Reuters. “We only have had masks for the last six to eight weeks, in a massive volume,” he added. “We are now seeing the effect on the environment.”
And the volume of waste is expected to grow exponentially as locals continue to use and discard disposable face masks in coming weeks and perhaps months unless the viral outbreak abates. The masks are made of polypropylene, which take a long time to break down in the environment.
People in Hong Kong generate 6 million tons of waste each year, with the vast majority of it ending up in overflowing landfills. The face masks are adding to that massive volume of waste.
Needless to say, Hong Kong is hardly the only place that is generating large amounts of extra waste with discarded plastic masks. Across much of the planet right now disposable face masks are being used and discarded as people do their best to protect themselves against the pernicious coronavirus.
“People think they’re protecting themselves, but it’s not just about protecting yourselves. You need to protect everybody and by not throwing away the mask properly, it’s very selfish,” stresses Tracey Read, founder of the green group Plastic Free Seas.