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A new study estimates more than 1.5 billion masks will enter the oceans this year.
On a quiet, secluded beach in the Soko Islands, south of Hong Kong and barely accessible to people, OceansAsia has been monitoring the water for plastic.
It's not hard to spot. Teale Phelps Bondaroff, Victoria-based research director at the marine conservation organization, says on a typical day they see piles of plastic several feet above the high tide line.
Fishing gear, cosmetic bottles, and enough furniture to complete a living room set have been found by the crew since they began their research in 2019.
In February 2020, however, members of OceansAsia started seeing a new source: face masks.
"My colleague was on the beach with one of our volunteers, and they collected about 70 masks across a 100-metre portion," said Phelps Bondaroff.
"It was about 6 weeks after COVID had really hit Hong Kong. Prior to that you might find one mask every few weeks."
The Victoria-based researcher says he and his colleague, Sam Cooke, decided that the emergence of the new pollutant deserved study.
Now, ten months later, they've released their findings in a report estimating the scale of mask pollution during COVID-19. Their figures are based on global production estimates and calculated on a 3% loss rate of masks via improper disposal.
The rate may seem modest but the worldwide consequences are huge.
"We estimate that 1.56 billion masks will enter our oceans in 2020, amounting to between 4,680 and 6,240 tonnes of plastic pollution," said Phelps Bondaroff. "These masks will take as long as 450 years to break down."
During that time, masks can become a major source of toxic microplastics, harming marine wildlife and ecosystems.
A major part of the problem is waste management. Single-use face masks contain a variety of different plastics and other materials like metal nose strips, making them difficult to recycle.
Many plastics have been revealed over recent years to be essentially worthless to recycle despite the plastic industry’s attempts to mislead the public into believing otherwise, and as a result plastic “recycling” has piled up in Canada and abroad.
Phelps Bondaroff also notes in his report that masks present the same problem: it costs more to recycle a mask than the recovered materials are worth.
The CRD says that disposable face masks are not part of the provincial recycling program. Single-use personal protective equipment (PPE) items are also not flushable and should be put in regular household garbage.
Natalie Grunberg-Ferreira, co-owner of Natural Hair Salon in downtown Victoria, says many locals are still unaware of that rule.
"I was thinking ‘can I put this in my recycling box?’" said Grunberg-Ferreira. "I think people are confused and they don’t know."
The business owner says she reached out to Green Circle Salons, an Ontario-based company offering waste solutions that she had worked with before.
"The whole idea is that you’re seeing PPE in the oceans now and also the streets," said Grunberg-Ferreira.
Green Circle Salons offers a PPE Recovery program, where they supply a disposal box for single-use masks and other materials for a modest fee. The client then ships the full box back to Green Circle Salons, where the materials are burned for energy or processed as construction material, such as asphalt filler.
A representative for Green Circle Salons says they currently have 1,784 clients signed up for the program, 81 of which are outside of the salon industry. They have processed six tonnes of waste, and they have the capacity to accept more than double their current volume of boxes.
Natural Hair Salon has opened their PPE recovery box up for public use, placing it outside their View Street storefront during business hours and returning it inside at the end of the day.
However, both Phelps Bondaroff and Grunberg-Ferreira agree that while the move is a good step, it's an imperfect solution.
"Unfortunately, I think our government isn’t there yet," said Grunberg-Ferreira. "But they’re doing other things, so let’s do this. Businesses can take care of this."
“It’s OK,” she said. “For now."
Phelps Bondaroff also sees issues with the long-term capacity of the tactic to prevent large numbers of masks from entering the ocean.
"The best piece of advice that we have is wear a reusable mask," he said. "We have to reduce consumption."
The good news is that the box at Natural Hair Salon may be filling up more slowly as people choose reusable masks instead of single-use ones.
Grunberg-Ferreira estimates that roughly half of her customers come with their own reusable masks now.
"I don’t think it’s a bad thing that there aren’t tons," she said, observing there were about 50 masks collected in the box's first week. "I’m hoping people are using reusable ones."
That's good news in Phelps Bondaroff's eyes. The researcher says that the key takeaway from his study is to think about how small actions with plastic on one side of the ocean can have far-reaching consequences around the world.
"We really need to appreciate that we’re global citizens," he said.
"Just because we don’t see the impact of our actions directly on our beaches doesn’t mean that we’re not having a positive or negative impact depending on what we do."