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Facemasks: The New Enemy of Our Oceans

I would like to consider myself environmentally conscious to some extent. I’m definitely not saying I’m perfect or that my one act of buying from charity shops or conscious brands will single handily save the world, but what I am saying is that garment awareness is so important to our everyday choices.

I’ll be the first to hold up my hands and say I love Zara (seriously, I love it). It’s infamously awful for its environmental impact, but does that stop me from wanting their clothes? Absolutely not.

You can love something from afar and resist the temptation of buying it (though it does take immense strength).

What is an issue at the moment is the need for face coverings during the pandemic. Facemasks themselves seem pretty harmless, your Nan has probably made you one, or your local supermarket has handed you a disposable one, but the issue is where they end up.

The ocean is the victim

Remember when straws were everywhere? The huge campaigns that told us that Satan created plastic straws and we should all convert to metal or bamboo ones? Well, similar attention has been sparked in relation to disposable facemasks.

It is estimated that 1.56 billion disposable facemasks have entered the ocean in 2020. A Hong Kong-based marine conservation organisation, OceansAsia, released data that tells us that 4,680 to 6,240 metric tonnes of marine plastic pollution will be added to the oceans just through facemasks.

To put it into perspective, a global production estimate of facemasks in 2020 suggests 52 billion masks were made. That means 3% of disposable facemasks ended up in our oceans alone.

This is just the very beginning of the facemask issue and extends to the rapidly growing concern for plastic levels in our oceans.

Why is it bad?

Not only are facemasks a risk to marine life, they can get wrapped around animals’ necks, or choke unsuspecting birds, but they also don’t break down easily. They can take up to 450 years to turn into microplastics. (Spoiler, microplastics are super bad too.)

Microplastics are less than five millimetres in size, making them nearly impossible to be extracted from the ocean. They then enter the food chain, impacting aquatic life through ingestion, being passed on to fish, birds, marine mammals, and potentially humans.

The full impact of them is unknown but most research is concerned about possible microplastic toxins swimming inside organisms, and then negatively effecting reproduction and biological functions.

So, what can we do?

Healthcare professionals and other key workers need single-use facemasks. They are crucial for clinical hygiene and shouldn’t be removed from circulation. However, experts suggest that everyone who does not need a disposable mask should choose a reusable one to help benefit the environment.

The Worldwide Wildlife Fund (WWF) has reported concerns about incorrect disposal of facemasks, stating, “If even 1% of the masks were disposed of incorrectly […] this would result in 10 million masks per month dispersed in the environment. This would entail the dispersion of over 40 thousand kilograms of plastic in nature.”

It’s super hard to resist temptation, especially when something as easily available as disposable facemasks are, but it’s imperative for our oceans to start wearing reusable ones when possible. I don’t want to contribute to marine damage if I can help it and I’m sure most people feel the same way (Look at how sweet seals are, we don’t want them to get harmed).

Mask options

You, your Nan, or even your friend can make a facemask. A great way to do this is to get an old jumper or top you don’t want anymore and follow a simple pattern (trust me, minimal sewing talent is needed for this). This is a double environmental win because upcycling old clothes is awesome.

Equally, there's a million reusable mask companies out there for you to chose from. Your local store will probably have some and if not shopping small on Etsy or Depop is a great, accessible option too.

The one thing I want to stress is that not everyone can wear a reusable facemask, but if you can you would be benefitting yourself, the environment, and our oceans immensely (and looking good whilst doing it!).


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