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SOS: Save Our Oceans Using Reusable Masks

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Jakarta - The estimate for the global use and disposal of masks and gloves would be around 129 billion face masks and 65 billion plastic gloves for every month of the Covid-19 pandemic [1].

A blue, used, disposable mask found on a beach covered in sand and surrounded by debris
More and more plastic trash are polluting our beaches

Source: Jonathan Farber [9]

Currently, the entire world is engulfed in the fight against Covid-19: Countries had to undergo lockdowns and now everyone is living a new normal where new laws have been created telling people to maintain social distance, adhere to travel bans and most importantly, wear masks in public places. Health officials have strongly urged the public to wear masks to minimise the virus transmission. Unfortunately, the immense increase in the use of disposable masks, gloves and other personal protective equipment has worsened plastic pollution due to the lack of understanding on how to dispose of them properly. As a result, masks are now found floating in the oceans and lying on the streets, threatening not only marine animals, but also humans [1].


About 13 million tonnes of plastic are thrown into the ocean every year and in the Mediterranean gets 570,000 tonnes of plastic annually. With the pandemic, these numbers are expected to grow exponentially [2].

According to Laurent Lombard, “...soon we’ll have more masks than jellyfish in the Mediterranean” [2]

During a beach clean up in Hong Kong, there were 70 discarded masks within 100 meters of the beach and a week later, there were an additional 30 masks. It was even reported that some of the masks did not look old but instead looked brand new which means it wasn't in the water for long. According to Gary Stokes, the founder of Oceans Asia, his team has seen masks along the high tide line and new ones coming in on the current. With a population of seven million people wearing masks everyday, a significant amount of waste is created [4].


A seagull on a sidewalk, unable to move cause its legs are caught in a disposable mask
A seagull was found in Essex unable to walk because its legs are entangled by a disposable mask

Source: RSPCA [5]

Not only can masks can hurt animals by entangling them, but they can also hurt and kill animals who cannot tell the difference between plastic items and their prey—something that commonly happens to marine life.

Back in July, a seagull was found in Essex unable to walk because the ear loops of a single-use face mask were tangled around his legs. The RSPCA (Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty in Animals) approached the gull and they noticed he could only hop, stumble and fall over. Adam Jones, inspector at the RSPCA, stated that “the elastic straps had tightened around his legs” making the joints swollen and sore. After being brought to the Wildlife Hospital, the vet was able to safely remove the mask but the gull was left traumatised and is now recovering in an aviary with other seagulls [5,6].

The seagull's legs are swollen and still caught in a disposable mask
An up-close image of the seagull's swollen legs caught in a disposable mask

Source: RSPCA [5]

Health and Safety

Along the Cisadane river in Indonesia, a large amount of medical waste has been spotted including face masks, hazmat suits and syringes. As the virus continues to spread, medical waste keeps piling up in Cipeucang landfill. Back in May, its walls collapsed, sending tons of garbage into the river which can clog waterways and cause floods. This results in a double threat for the citizens who live by the river since this is also where they bathe and wash their clothes. Eka Purwanti, a resident who lives by the river with her children says “I still worry, but I have to wash here. I hope nothing will happen” [7].

Disposable masks can increase the risk of spreading coronavirus to waste collectors, litter pickers or pedestrians who would come across the used masks. Especially because in certain conditions, the virus is known to survive for up to seven days [3].

In Columbia, an employee of the Maury County Solid Waste Department has died, another is currently hospitalised and other employees are currently quarantining after contracting the coronavirus. To prevent further spread of the virus, the county was sanitised but some employees tested positive even after the cleaning [8].


What To Do

Despite having various options of masks - reusable masks (either bought or made yourself), reusable masks with disposable filters and disposable (single-use) masks - people opt for the wasteful option which is the single-use or disposable masks. This is often done because they are guaranteed to provide protection, are cheap and most of all convenient [1].

A single, blue glove found thrown on the street
A hazardous safety item thrown on our streets

Source: Krzystof Hepner [10]

Steps that can be taken to reduce the impact of wearing face masks are the following [3]:

1. Use reusable masks (without disposable filters) and machine wash them after every use based on the instructions for the fabric.

2. Always carry a spare reusable mask. In case something happens to the mask you’re wearing, you would have a spare so you won’t have to buy a disposable mask.

3. If you need to use a disposable mask, dispose of it properly. Take off the mask using the ear loop and remember not to touch the outer part of the mask. Place it in a biodegradable plastic bag and throw it in a bin that has a lid. Snip the ear loops on both sides. A better option is to throw it in a bin designated for medical waste.

4. Do not put disposable masks in recycling. This can be a major biohazard to waste workers.

5. Most importantly, do not litter them! This is also a major biohazard for people and animals.


Wearing masks is the responsible thing to do during this time. However, we need to keep in mind the environmental impact of our preventative equipment. With that being said, always opt for a reusable mask. Wash masks properly using a machine. If using a disposable mask, always dispose of it properly as previously mentioned. Most importantly, do not litter.

During this time, it is important to be socially responsible and protect ourselves and the people around us. Always use your mask and stay safe.


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