Culture

Forget The Straws, Over A Billion Masks Now Pollute The Ocean

By Gwen Farrell
·  7 min read
Forget The Straws, Over A Billion Masks Now Pollute The Ocean shutterstock

A climate change-obsessed culture dictates that we need to commit every waking moment to investing anxiety in the changes affecting our planet. But, conveniently enough, we’ve somehow neglected the very obvious consequences the pandemic is having with regards to some of the most vulnerable aspects of our environment.

Urban areas dominated by progressive leadership have dedicated green initiatives to banning single-use plastic like straws or utensils, and many bureaucracies now treat climate change as another public health crisis. Simultaneously, they mandate wearing masks in public places for the supposed safety of the general public, and are silent on the irrevocable damage masks are doing to our environment. Forget the straws – over 1.5 billion masks now pollute the ocean, but even the most publicly vocal on climate change are notably silent.

Our Inauthentic Obsession with Saving the Environment

Banning single-use plastic, like straws and utensils in restaurants and other businesses, is now the virtue signal du jour as far as communicating how climate-conscious a city is. But many – namely the public and the business owners who will be affected firsthand by these types of legislation – are understandably concerned about the realistic efficacy of such measures.

The city of Maui, Hawaii is preparing to welcome 2022 completely plastic-free. Under the Maui City Council’s Bill 52, businesses that supply food and drink and restaurant suppliers are prohibited from selling plastic forks, knives, spoons, and even foam coolers or plastic food containers or take-home boxes. Other Hawaiian cities, like Honolulu, are also expected to adopt similar restrictions in 2022 in an effort to curb plastic waste and pollution. At first glance, such legislation is an impressive step towards committing to a plastic and hopefully pollution-free world. 

95% of plastic in the ocean originates in 10 rivers, eight in Asia and two in Africa. 

But in reality, many business owners say the legislation hurts the bottom line of the businesses affected by the restriction, especially in increasing supply costs as inflation continues to increase. The same business owners also have concerns about the efficacy of the plastic alternatives, namely paper substitutes. Such alternatives are estimated to triple the supply costs for businesses, and other critics of the city council’s mandate have argued that city leadership should have looked at more realistic environmental measures, like curbing trash and littering, rather than completely banning plastic.

Many places that have since banned plastic straws have given us the opportunity to see how effective these restrictions are in practice – and the results are surprising. One critic attempts to pinpoint where the frenzy against plastic straws started, and emphasizes a viral video from 2015 posted by a biologist whose team removed a piece of a plastic straw from a sea turtle’s nostril. Overnight, the tide turned against plastic straw use, even though (as the same critic goes on to illustrate) 95% of plastic in the ocean originates in 10 rivers, eight in Asia and two in Africa. It’s also estimated that the crushing majority of plastic pollution comes from countries like China, Thailand, and Vietnam, meaning the European Union banning plastic straw use amounted to little more than political theater. Instead of investing in environmental research or realistic (and effective) campaigns where pollution is produced the most, the West single-handedly made the pollution conversation about them, and not about holding the responsible parties accountable.

Collateral Damage 

Plastic straws and utensils aside, we’re now on the precipice of a genuine environmental crisis, one that was regrettably preventable. Even as lockdown proponents touted the benefits that stay-at-home measures had on traffic and air pollution, we were quickly learning that our “life-saving” disposable masks and other personal protective equipment were having the exact opposite effect.

One report in Italy breaks down just how quickly this crisis took hold and became our newest environmental threat. During the country’s Phase II period, when lockdowns were beginning to lessen and public spaces were beginning to open back up, half a billion disposable gloves and one billion masks were needed – per month. 

In 2020, 1.56 billion face masks were released into oceans.

These statistics are frightening on their own when you begin to calculate how long masks and PPE have been needed, but they’re even more terrifying on a global scale. Marine and environmental researchers have estimated that in 2020, 1.56 billion face masks were released into oceans. By August 2021, 8.4 million tons of plastic trash were generated by 193 countries, including – but not limited to – Covid test kits, face masks, gloves, and plastic face shields, as well as the waste generated by unprecedented numbers of online shopping and e-commerce sites. Additionally, disposable masks are estimated to take 450 years to biodegrade. Mask waste from the year 2020 alone now makes up 7% of the Great Pacific garbage patch, an 80,000 ton mass of waste that resides in the Pacific Ocean.

When you project these numbers in correlation with how long mask mandates have been in place – and how long they’re expected to continue – the numbers aren't just concerning. They should be thought-provoking enough that we’re motivated to ask ourselves: is this really worth it?

Masks Are Ineffective Overall

We now know more about Covid than we did in the spring of 2020, namely who is most likely to be affected and how to recognize the most telltale symptoms – yet disposable masks are still somehow cited as the best way to mitigate transmission, even with the arrival of new variants we know nothing about.

Looking closer into the efficacy of masks might not be something we’re interested in this far into things, but basic logic dictates that if we’re well aware that something isn’t working for our benefit, we’d get rid of it, right? Apparently not.

85% of individuals who contracted Covid wore masks “always” or “often,” as reported by the CDC.

In July 2020, we learned that 85% of individuals who contracted Covid wore masks “always” or “often,” as reported by the CDC. A “systematic review” of 1,453 patients found “no difference in infection rates” between masked and unmasked patients. A study of healthcare workers in Japan conducted nearly 13 years ago discovered that “face mask use in healthcare workers has not been demonstrated to provide benefit in terms of [common] cold symptoms.” We’ve also recently learned that cloth masks are “useless” against the Omicron variant, even though two months ago, we were told that “a well-fitting cloth mask could be better than or equivalent to a surgical mask that’s poorly fitting.” 

Masks might have understandably been touted as fully effective at preventing transmission at the beginning of the pandemic. But now, with developing variants and what we know about the true extent of how the waste is impacting the environment, isn’t it time to find a better alternative, or better yet, discontinue their use altogether?

Closing Thoughts

A cost-benefit analysis is a test used to determine the strengths and weaknesses of a topic – and if the benefits outweigh the cost. Thousands of people, many of them who are likely dedicated mask wearers, continue to test positive for Covid, some in more areas than ever before. Those who want the vaccine and the booster have had the opportunity to get both. It’s time to face the facts: the apparent benefits of masks (whether physical, psychological, or otherwise) do not outweigh the costs. If anything, the costs we’re now well aware of should be more than enough to motivate us to get rid of them.

It’s unfortunate that we didn’t have the foresight months ago to see the damage masks and other pandemic-related equipment would have on our environment, specifically on oceans and marine life. But we know now, so what’s our excuse?

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