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Nearly 1.6 billion disposable masks polluted oceans in 2020, will take 450 years to decompose

Fifty-two billion masks were produced in 2020, and about 1.6 billion entered earth's oceans, according to a new report.

Updated: July 30, 2021 - 5:13pm

The Facts Inside Our Reporter’s Notebook

Nearly 1.6 billion disposable face masks ended up in the earth's oceans in 2020, out of the roughly 52 billion produced in response to the pandemic, according to a study.

While governments around the world continue to support mask mandates in public spaces, the impact of disposable masks is only just emerging.

The report, by the Hong Kong-based marine conservation group OceansAsia, title "Masks on the Beach," also estimated that roughly 5,500 tons of plastic pollution entered the ocean in 2020 from masks.

The figure is equal to 7% of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a mass of plastic debris floating in the ocean that is twice the size of Texas.

While a cigarette butt or plastic bag takes 20 years or less to degrade in the ocean, according to Visual Capitalist, a plastic bottle, disposable diaper or a disposable mask takes nearly 450 years to fully break down. 

The majority of disposable masks – like N95 respirators and surgical masks – were produced in China factories, which were reportedly producing 450 million masks per day in April 2020. 

Despite a reduction of mask-wearing in recent months, officials appear to be ramping up masks yet again, with the emergence of the virus' highly-contractable delta variant.

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