Masked: uncovering an unseen issue

For Imperial’s Sustainability Week, medical student Urvi highlights the environmental impact of abandoned face masks.

This pandemic has unexpectedly impacted the entire world in more ways than one. Despite a whole year having passed in what feels like the blink of an eye, so many historic moments have occurred over the past year, ranging from huge political changes to unrest and activism. It’s given us a lot to reflect on and I know that I personally have realised how there is so much we can do to strive to make this world a better place.

Other than grocery shopping, leaving my house for a walk is unfortunately the only kind of outing I’ve had these days. It dawned upon me how wrongly accustomed I had become to seeing masks and gloves littered and trodden into the pavement and grass near where I lived. I don’t remember there being so much litter in my neighbourhood before. I couldn’t help but think that if this is the case in our cities and towns, imagine how many masks and gloves would be littering our beaches and rivers, let alone our oceans…

When did we become so careless about our environment?

COVID-19 has led to the exponential increase in the use of disposable single-use plastics worldwide – specifically, the rapid but necessary uptake of face masks and gloves. Being one of the best ways an individual can limit the spread of the virus, masks have been essential to maintaining the safety of those around us. It is likely to become the new norm which makes it incredibly important to also consider the type of mask we choose to use.

Disposable masks and gloves can take ~450years to degrade, during which they breakdown into microplastics and are ingested by marine life, entering our ecosystems and food chains. The masks you use today to protect yourself from the current pandemic will still be around for generations to come. That is if they haven’t been mistaken for food and clog the intestines of marine animals, resulting in starvation.

Land animals such as birds have also often been hurt after becoming entangled in plastic waste. Prior to the pandemic, plastic pollution was already skyrocketing with as much as 33,800 plastic bottles entering the sea every minute according to the WWF. This has grown substantially since the pandemic started – COVID waste may result in more masks than jellyfish in the sea. That can’t be right, right?

PPE and disposable gear are critical for frontline healthcare staff to limit the spread of coronavirus whilst also protecting themselves. The good news is that there are a multitude of more sustainable alternatives available to the public which do not have to be single-use plastics!

What can we do as individuals?

Here are some ideas that I’ve come across which may help limit the waste we generate as individuals:

  1. Use reusable masks without disposable filters & reusable gloves
  2. Carry a spare reusable mask in your jacket pockets/cars/bags in case you forget yours to avoid buying/using a disposable mask
  3. If you must use disposable, dispose of them properly and try and snip the straps of the masks to avoid animals getting tangled in them. According to the RSPCA, so many animals suffer and are hurt by these straps.
  4. If using hand sanitiser, bulk buy it in the biggest bottle you can and refill old travel bottles to reduce waste.

Choices that we make as individuals can collectively have a massive impact. It is time we try to ditch single-use plastics in every aspect of our lives. Incorporating more sustainable practices to protect the environment to the best of our own abilities is the best thing we can do as individuals. Let’s work together to make this world a better place for our future selves as well as the living beings we share this planet with.

“Life presents many choices and the choices we make determine our future.” – Catherine Pulsifier

Urvi Bihani is a fourth-year medical student at Imperial College School of Medicine.

Illustrations by Urvi Bihani – find out more about her work

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