The COVID-19 pandemic is claiming lives, making millions uncomfortable and wreaking havoc on the global economy. It is also contributing to plastic pollution in places like Hong Kong.
Countless N95 respirator and surgical masks that local people wear to protect themselves from the new coronavirus are improperly discarded, meaning that much of these masks end up on beaches and in the sea. Once there, they pose an additional threat to sea creatures that can mistake them for food or become entangled in them.
On the small, uninhabited Soko Islands of Hong Kong, a conservationist recently counted 70 discarded masks on a 100-meter stretch of beach. A week later, he discovered another 30 masks there. At other beaches around Hong Kong, plastic pollution from face masks has reached similar levels.
"That was quite alarming for us," conservationist GaryStokes, who founded the environmental group Oceans Asia, told Reuters. "We've only had masks for the last six or eight weeks, in massive volume," he added. "Now we are seeing the effect on the environment."
And the volume of waste is expected to grow exponentially as locals continue to use and dispose of disposable face masks in the coming weeks and perhaps months, unless the viral outbreak subsides. The masks are made of polypropylene, which takes a long time to break down in the environment.
People in Hong Kong generate 6 million tons of waste each year, with the vast majority ending up in overflowing landfills. Face masks add to that massive volume of waste. Needless to say, Hong Kong is not the only place generating large amounts of additional waste from discarded plastic masks.
In much of the planet, disposable face masks are used and discarded right now as people do everything possible to protect themselves against the pernicious coronavirus.
"People think they are protecting themselves, but it's not just about protecting themselves." You have to protect everyone and by not throwing away the mask correctly, it is very selfish, "emphasizes Tracey Read, founder of the green group Plastic Free Seas.