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Claiming 3 million masks used globally every minute, researchers warn of environmental catastrophe

Worldwide mask usage has skyrocketed in the past year.

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A surgical mask
A surgical mask
(Polly Thomas/Getty)
Updated: March 12, 2021 - 7:54pm

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Researchers are warning that heavy mask usage over the course of the coronavirus pandemic could be contributing to a looming environmental disaster, with millions of masks being used every minute and many of them polluting local ecosystems in the process. 

Researchers in the U.S. and Denmark estimated in a study in Frontiers in Environmental Science that "an astounding 129 billion face masks [are] being used globally every month," a number that works out to three million every minute. "Most are disposable face masks made from plastic microfibers," the researchers note.

With mask usage skyrocketing to unprecedented highs over the past year due to beliefs that masks can help stop the spread of COVID-19, the scientists note that "there is no official guidance on mask recycle, making it more likely to be disposed of as solid waste."

"When not properly collected and managed, masks can be transported from land into freshwater and marine environ- ments by surface run-off, river flows, oceanic currents, wind, and animals," they warn. 

The researchers note that, due to the likelihood of COVID-19 becoming an endemic disease among the global population, "It is imperative to launch coordinated efforts from environmental scientists, medical agencies, and solid waste managing organizations, and the general public to minimize the negative impacts of disposal mask, and eventually prevent it from becoming another too-big-to- handle problem."

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