The ongoing coronavirus pandemic and mask mandates rolled out by governments worldwide have caused an “exponential increase” in face mask pollution, comprehensive research based on data collected in 11 countries suggests.
The damning study by a team of researchers with the University of Portsmouth was published in the Nature Sustainability journal on Thursday.
The group conducted a comprehensive study of personal protective equipment (PPE), observing an “exponential increase” in such litter amid anti-coronavirus measures. Their findings are based on data collected across 11 countries, including Australia, Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Spain, Sweden, the UK, and the US, using a litter collection application Litterati.
The research spans 14 months, with September 2019 figures used as the baseline. Covid-related litter began to grow at alarming rates in March 2020, when the spread of the virus turned into a full-blown global pandemic, with governments worldwide introducing various restrictions, including mandatory face mask-wearing.
“Overall the study shows the impact that legislating the use of items such as masks can have on their occurrence as litter. We found that littered masks had an exponential increase from March 2020, resulting in an 84-fold increase by October 2020,” Dr. Keiron Roberts, lead researcher with the University of Portsmouth, said.
Among the countries sampled, the UK has shown the “highest overall proportion of masks, gloves and wipes as litter,” according to the study. In August-October 2020, for instance, masks accounted for more than 5% of all litter produced there, with wipes and gloves accounting for a further 1.5%.
The nearly 9,000% increase in PPE litter clearly shows the enforcement of face mask-wearing “must be accompanied with education campaigns to limit their release into the environment,” Roberts added. While pandemic-related restrictions, such as curbs on international travel, have had a minor positive impact on the environment, the skyrocketing PPE pollution has become truly alarming, the researchers said.
“In April 2020, it was beginning to appear that there were some small positives in the decrease in human activity caused by lockdown, with improvements in air quality and water quality. Reduced human activity also saw reports of animals coming back to towns and cities,” Roberts stated, adding that masks also began appearing “where they hadn’t been before.”