Used masks finding their way into oceans as another source of man-made pollution

Within a few weeks of mass usage, masks are already causing pollution.

Belmont Lay | April 18, 2020, 10:24 PM

Disposable face masks and gloves used to prevent Covid-19 infection are finding their way into the oceans, environmentalists are warning.

The latest glut of plastic pollution comes as single-use masks and latex gloves are being used and discarded at high frequency worldwide in a bid to curb the spread of the virus.

Pictures of bright blue gloves and crumpled masks littering streets, shopping carts, parking lots, beaches and green spaces are being posted from around the world on social media.

The clearing of these masks are usually left to front line staff, such as cleaners and maintenance workers, but frequently, it becomes on one's responsibility.

Those not cleared can end up being washed into open drains that carry the debris into water bodies and end up in the ocean.

In Hong Kong, were waste management is already a challenge and where waste end up in a landfill, the odds of debris finding its way into the sea is high.


Many of these protective equipment contain materials that do not recycle and are not biodegradable.

Surgical masks are made using non-woven fabrics, including plastics like polypropylene.

Effects of masks usage in span of two months

As plastic swirls around in the water, much of it breaks down to tiny pieces, called micro-plastics.

Micro-plastics are a cause for concern as they are so tiny they cannot be collected back or removed from the water, unlike how intact plastic debris can be picked off the beach by hand.

Many fish species consume plastics debris, confusing it for real food, which leads to plastic entering the food chain with nearly a billion people around the world consuming seafood as their primary source of protein.

At least 8 million tonnes of plastic end up in the oceans every year, making up 80 per cent of all marine debris.

The bright colours of latex gloves can also be mistaken as food by seabirds, turtles and other marine mammals.

Most of Hong Kong’s 7.4 million people have for weeks been putting on single-use face masks every day in the hope of warding off the coronavirus.

By March, about six to eight weeks after the Covid-19 virus began spreading in earnest, a large number of the masks were found on the beach of Hong Kong’s isolated and uninhabited Soko islands.

The masks are adding to Hong Kong’s marine trash problem, which flows from mainland China and elsewhere.

All photos via Ocean Asia