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Preventing masks from becoming the next plastic problem

Preventing masks from becoming the next plastic problem Front. Environ. Sci. Eng. 2021, 15(6): 125 https://doi.org/10.1007/s11783-021-1413-7 VIEWS & COMMENTS 1 2 Elvis Genbo Xu (✉) , Zhiyong Jason Ren (✉) 1 Department of Biology, University of Southern Denmark, Odense 5230, Denmark 2 Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ 08544, USA © Higher Education Press 2021 estimated to be 43 billion per month. However, different Face masks help prevent the spread of coronavirus and other diseases, and mass masking is recommended by from plastic bottles, ~ 25% of which is recycled, there is no almost all health groups and countries to control the official guidance on mask recycle, making it more likely to COVID-19 pandemic (Brooks et al., 2020). Recent studies be disposed of as solid waste (Fadare and Okoffo, 2020). estimated an astounding 129 billion face masks being used Mask materials and environmental fates and globally every month (3 million / minute) and most are impacts: The common disposable surgical masks are disposable face masks made from plastic microfibers (Prata made of three layers. The outer layer is made up of non- et al., 2020). With increasing reports on inappropriate absorbent material (e.g., polyester) that protects against disposal of masks, it is urgent to recognize this potential liquid splashes. The middle layer is non-woven fabrics (e. environmental threat and prevent it from becoming the g., polypropylene and polystyrene) created using a melt- next plastic problem. blowing process, which prevents droplets and aerosols via Waste plastics are one of the most prevalent environ- an electrostatic effect. The inner layer is made of absorbent mental pollutants today. Even before COVID, over 300 material like cotton to absorb vapor (Fig. 1). Different million tons of plastics are produced globally per year and polymers are used in mask manufacturing, and fabric most end up in nature as waste (Geyer et al., 2017). Plastic polypropylene is used the most. Polypropylene is one of the most commonly produced plastics and the high usage products can not be readily biodegraded but fragment into has led to a large waste accumulation in the environment smaller plastic particles, namely micro- and nanoplastics (Andrady, 2011). Once in the environment, the mask is that widespread in ecosystems (Alimi et al., 2018; Nguyen subjected to solar radiation and heat, but the degradation of et al., 2019). Ingestion of microplastics is known to cause polypropylene is retarded due to its high hydrophobicity, direct adverse effects and also expose organisms to toxic high molecular weight, lacking an active functional group, chemicals and pathogenic microorganisms (Vethaak and Leslie, 2016). and continuous chain of repetitive methylene units. These The pandemic and use of masks: Similar to the recalcitrant properties lead to the persistence and accumu- “throwaway living” style for other plastic products, lation in the environment. The in situ weathering can disposable masks have symbolized pandemics from 2003 generate a large number of micro-sized polypropylene SARS to COVID-19 (Syed et al., 2003; Elachola et al., particles (< 5 mm) during a relatively short period (weeks) 2020). Although there is no official report on how many and further fragment into nanoplastics (< 1 mm) (Mattsson masks are disposed of, studies estimated billions of masks et al., 2018). are needed monthly. China as the largest mask producer When not properly collected and managed, masks can be increased its production by a factor of 10 in March 2020 transported from land into freshwater and marine environ- (source: “The daily output of masks exceeding 100 ments by surface run-off, river flows, oceanic currents, million” on Xinhua Daily Telegraph, 3 March 2020). wind, and animals (via entanglement or ingestion) (Fig. 1). Globally, a recent study estimated a monthly use of 129 The occurrence of waste masks has been increasingly billion face masks (Prata et al., 2020). This puts disposable reported in different environments and social media have shared of wildlife tangled in elastic straps of masks. The masks on a similar scale as plastic bottles, which is author also observes disposable surgical masks in Odense, Denmark (Fig. 2). Like other plastic debris, disposable Received November 18, 2020; Revised January 26, 2021; Accepted masks may accumulate and release harmful chemical and January 27, 2021; Available online February 28, 2021 biological substances, such as bisphenol A, heavy metals, as well as pathogenic micro-organisms. Moreover, the E-mails: elvis@biology.sdu.dk (E. Xu) , zjren@princeton.edu (Z. Ren) 2 Front. Environ. Sci. Eng. 2021, 15(6): 125 Fig. 1 The potential environmental fates and impacts of disposable surgical masks. uptake of small plastic particles is known to cause adverse plastics poses a potential threat to the environment. Such health effects by three main possible means: particle impacts in global plastic pollution are essentially toxicity, chemical toxicity, and pathogenic microorganism unknown. Thus, the environmental research community vectors (Vethaak and Leslie, 2016). A newer and bigger needs to move fast to understand and mitigate these risks. concern is that the masks are directly made from micro- Critical rethinking of the three ‘Rs’ can be valuable: sized plastic fibers (thickness of ~1 to 10 mm). When regulate (life-cycle evaluation on production, disposal, and breaking down in the environment, the mask may release decontamination), reuse (washable masks), and replace more micro-sized plastics, easier and faster than bulk (biodegradable materials) single-use plastic masks. In this plastics like plastic bags. Such impacts can be worsened by effort, interdisciplinary research is urgently needed on the a new-generation mask, nanomasks, which directly use environmental fates of disposable masks, including nano-sized plastic fibers (e.g., diameter< 1 mm) and add a transportation, accumulation, fragmentation, degradation, new source of nanoplastic pollution. However, no data on release of micro- and nanoplastics, harmful chemicals and mask degradation in nature exists, so we simply do not pathogens, and potential effects on life. Programs can be know how masks contribute to the large number of plastic made to set up mask-only trash cans for collection and particles detected in the environment. disposal. Standardization, guidelines, and strict implemen- Best practices and research needs: Disposable plastic tation of waste management for mask wastes should be items including masks are irreplaceable in fighting the considered (Sangkham, 2020). Reusable face masks like cotton masks are recommended to replace disposable pandemic, and the concerns about reusable plastics as masks. Other development can be made to manufacture vectors for virus have led to delays in recycling programs and single-use plastic regulations. While there are concerns biodegradable disposal masks but the higher cost and about transmission via contaminated household plastic unknown safety of new materials need to be considered. items, the probability of such transmission is considered Preventive measures including mask-wearing, vaccine- low compared to personal protection equipment (PPE) developing, and good hygiene shall all remain. Identifica- residues that are more likely in contact with the virus. tion and elimination of the major inputs of mask waste to Rather the dramatic increase in disposal of such single-use reduce the likelihood of masks entering the environment Elvis Genbo Xu & Zhiyong Jason Ren. Preventing masks from becoming the next plastic problem 3 Fig. 2 Disposable surgical masks and mask fragments observed in Odense, Denmark. Photo credit: Dr. Elvis Genbo Xu. March 2020. Travel Medicine and Infectious Disease, 35: 101637 are urgent. “The coronavirus may never go away but just Fadare O O, Okoffo E D (2020). Covid-19 face masks: A potential become another endemic virus in our communities”, the source of microplastic fibers in the environment. Science of the Total WHO warns (source: “Coronavirus may never go away, Environment, 737: 140279 World Health Organization warns” on BBC News, 14 May Geyer R, Jambeck J R, Law K L (2017). Production, use, and fate of all 2020). It is imperative to launch coordinated efforts from plastics ever made. Science Advances, 3(7): e1700782 environmental scientists, medical agencies, and solid waste Mattsson K, Jocic S, Doverbratt I, Hansson L A (2018). Nanoplastics in managing organizations, and the general public to the aquatic environment. In: Zeng E Y, ed. Microplastic Contamina- minimize the negative impacts of disposal mask, and tion in Aquatic Environments. Amsterdam: Elsevier, 379–399 eventually prevent it from becoming another too-big-to- Nguyen B, Claveau-Mallet D, Hernandez L M, Xu E G, Farner J M, handle problem. Tufenkji N (2019). Separation and analysis of microplastics and nanoplastics in complex environmental samples. Accounts of References Chemical Research, 52(4): 858–866 Prata J C, Silva A L, Walker T R, Duarte A C, Rocha-Santos T (2020). Alimi O S, Farner Budarz J, Hernandez L M, Tufenkji N (2018). COVID-19 pandemic repercussions on the use and management of Microplastics and nanoplastics in aquatic environments: Aggrega- plastics. Environmental Science & Technology, 54(13): 7760–7765 tion, deposition, and enhanced contaminant transport. Environmental Sangkham S (2020). Face mask and medical waste disposal during the Science & Technology, 52(4): 1704–1724 novel COVID-19 pandemic in Asia. Case Studies in Chemical and Andrady A L (2011). Microplastics in the marine environment. Marine Environmental Engineering, 2: 100052 Pollution Bulletin, 62(8): 1596–1605 Syed Q, Sopwith W, Regan M, Bellis M A (2003). Behind the mask. Brooks J T, Butler J C, Redfield R R (2020). Universal masking to Journey through an epidemic: Some observations of contrasting prevent SARS-CoV-2 transmission—the time is now. Journal of the public health responses to SARS. Journal of Epidemiology and American Medical Association, 324(7): 635–637 Community Health, 57(11): 855–856 Elachola H, Ebrahim S H, Gozzer E (2020). COVID-19: Facemask use Vethaak A D, Leslie H A (2016). Plastic debris is a human health issue. prevalence in international airports in Asia, Europe and the Americas, Environmental Science & Technology, 50(13): 6825–6826 http://www.deepdyve.com/assets/images/DeepDyve-Logo-lg.png Frontiers of Environmental Science & Engineering Pubmed Central

Preventing masks from becoming the next plastic problem

Frontiers of Environmental Science & Engineering , Volume 15 (6) – Feb 28, 2021

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Publisher
Pubmed Central
Copyright
© Higher Education Press 2021
ISSN
2095-2201
eISSN
2095-221X
DOI
10.1007/s11783-021-1413-7
Publisher site
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Abstract

Front. Environ. Sci. Eng. 2021, 15(6): 125 https://doi.org/10.1007/s11783-021-1413-7 VIEWS & COMMENTS 1 2 Elvis Genbo Xu (✉) , Zhiyong Jason Ren (✉) 1 Department of Biology, University of Southern Denmark, Odense 5230, Denmark 2 Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ 08544, USA © Higher Education Press 2021 estimated to be 43 billion per month. However, different Face masks help prevent the spread of coronavirus and other diseases, and mass masking is recommended by from plastic bottles, ~ 25% of which is recycled, there is no almost all health groups and countries to control the official guidance on mask recycle, making it more likely to COVID-19 pandemic (Brooks et al., 2020). Recent studies be disposed of as solid waste (Fadare and Okoffo, 2020). estimated an astounding 129 billion face masks being used Mask materials and environmental fates and globally every month (3 million / minute) and most are impacts: The common disposable surgical masks are disposable face masks made from plastic microfibers (Prata made of three layers. The outer layer is made up of non- et al., 2020). With increasing reports on inappropriate absorbent material (e.g., polyester) that protects against disposal of masks, it is urgent to recognize this potential liquid splashes. The middle layer is non-woven fabrics (e. environmental threat and prevent it from becoming the g., polypropylene and polystyrene) created using a melt- next plastic problem. blowing process, which prevents droplets and aerosols via Waste plastics are one of the most prevalent environ- an electrostatic effect. The inner layer is made of absorbent mental pollutants today. Even before COVID, over 300 material like cotton to absorb vapor (Fig. 1). Different million tons of plastics are produced globally per year and polymers are used in mask manufacturing, and fabric most end up in nature as waste (Geyer et al., 2017). Plastic polypropylene is used the most. Polypropylene is one of the most commonly produced plastics and the high usage products can not be readily biodegraded but fragment into has led to a large waste accumulation in the environment smaller plastic particles, namely micro- and nanoplastics (Andrady, 2011). Once in the environment, the mask is that widespread in ecosystems (Alimi et al., 2018; Nguyen subjected to solar radiation and heat, but the degradation of et al., 2019). Ingestion of microplastics is known to cause polypropylene is retarded due to its high hydrophobicity, direct adverse effects and also expose organisms to toxic high molecular weight, lacking an active functional group, chemicals and pathogenic microorganisms (Vethaak and Leslie, 2016). and continuous chain of repetitive methylene units. These The pandemic and use of masks: Similar to the recalcitrant properties lead to the persistence and accumu- “throwaway living” style for other plastic products, lation in the environment. The in situ weathering can disposable masks have symbolized pandemics from 2003 generate a large number of micro-sized polypropylene SARS to COVID-19 (Syed et al., 2003; Elachola et al., particles (< 5 mm) during a relatively short period (weeks) 2020). Although there is no official report on how many and further fragment into nanoplastics (< 1 mm) (Mattsson masks are disposed of, studies estimated billions of masks et al., 2018). are needed monthly. China as the largest mask producer When not properly collected and managed, masks can be increased its production by a factor of 10 in March 2020 transported from land into freshwater and marine environ- (source: “The daily output of masks exceeding 100 ments by surface run-off, river flows, oceanic currents, million” on Xinhua Daily Telegraph, 3 March 2020). wind, and animals (via entanglement or ingestion) (Fig. 1). Globally, a recent study estimated a monthly use of 129 The occurrence of waste masks has been increasingly billion face masks (Prata et al., 2020). This puts disposable reported in different environments and social media have shared of wildlife tangled in elastic straps of masks. The masks on a similar scale as plastic bottles, which is author also observes disposable surgical masks in Odense, Denmark (Fig. 2). Like other plastic debris, disposable Received November 18, 2020; Revised January 26, 2021; Accepted masks may accumulate and release harmful chemical and January 27, 2021; Available online February 28, 2021 biological substances, such as bisphenol A, heavy metals, as well as pathogenic micro-organisms. Moreover, the E-mails: elvis@biology.sdu.dk (E. Xu) , zjren@princeton.edu (Z. Ren) 2 Front. Environ. Sci. Eng. 2021, 15(6): 125 Fig. 1 The potential environmental fates and impacts of disposable surgical masks. uptake of small plastic particles is known to cause adverse plastics poses a potential threat to the environment. Such health effects by three main possible means: particle impacts in global plastic pollution are essentially toxicity, chemical toxicity, and pathogenic microorganism unknown. Thus, the environmental research community vectors (Vethaak and Leslie, 2016). A newer and bigger needs to move fast to understand and mitigate these risks. concern is that the masks are directly made from micro- Critical rethinking of the three ‘Rs’ can be valuable: sized plastic fibers (thickness of ~1 to 10 mm). When regulate (life-cycle evaluation on production, disposal, and breaking down in the environment, the mask may release decontamination), reuse (washable masks), and replace more micro-sized plastics, easier and faster than bulk (biodegradable materials) single-use plastic masks. In this plastics like plastic bags. Such impacts can be worsened by effort, interdisciplinary research is urgently needed on the a new-generation mask, nanomasks, which directly use environmental fates of disposable masks, including nano-sized plastic fibers (e.g., diameter< 1 mm) and add a transportation, accumulation, fragmentation, degradation, new source of nanoplastic pollution. However, no data on release of micro- and nanoplastics, harmful chemicals and mask degradation in nature exists, so we simply do not pathogens, and potential effects on life. Programs can be know how masks contribute to the large number of plastic made to set up mask-only trash cans for collection and particles detected in the environment. disposal. Standardization, guidelines, and strict implemen- Best practices and research needs: Disposable plastic tation of waste management for mask wastes should be items including masks are irreplaceable in fighting the considered (Sangkham, 2020). Reusable face masks like cotton masks are recommended to replace disposable pandemic, and the concerns about reusable plastics as masks. Other development can be made to manufacture vectors for virus have led to delays in recycling programs and single-use plastic regulations. While there are concerns biodegradable disposal masks but the higher cost and about transmission via contaminated household plastic unknown safety of new materials need to be considered. items, the probability of such transmission is considered Preventive measures including mask-wearing, vaccine- low compared to personal protection equipment (PPE) developing, and good hygiene shall all remain. Identifica- residues that are more likely in contact with the virus. tion and elimination of the major inputs of mask waste to Rather the dramatic increase in disposal of such single-use reduce the likelihood of masks entering the environment Elvis Genbo Xu & Zhiyong Jason Ren. Preventing masks from becoming the next plastic problem 3 Fig. 2 Disposable surgical masks and mask fragments observed in Odense, Denmark. Photo credit: Dr. Elvis Genbo Xu. March 2020. Travel Medicine and Infectious Disease, 35: 101637 are urgent. “The coronavirus may never go away but just Fadare O O, Okoffo E D (2020). Covid-19 face masks: A potential become another endemic virus in our communities”, the source of microplastic fibers in the environment. Science of the Total WHO warns (source: “Coronavirus may never go away, Environment, 737: 140279 World Health Organization warns” on BBC News, 14 May Geyer R, Jambeck J R, Law K L (2017). Production, use, and fate of all 2020). It is imperative to launch coordinated efforts from plastics ever made. Science Advances, 3(7): e1700782 environmental scientists, medical agencies, and solid waste Mattsson K, Jocic S, Doverbratt I, Hansson L A (2018). Nanoplastics in managing organizations, and the general public to the aquatic environment. In: Zeng E Y, ed. Microplastic Contamina- minimize the negative impacts of disposal mask, and tion in Aquatic Environments. Amsterdam: Elsevier, 379–399 eventually prevent it from becoming another too-big-to- Nguyen B, Claveau-Mallet D, Hernandez L M, Xu E G, Farner J M, handle problem. Tufenkji N (2019). Separation and analysis of microplastics and nanoplastics in complex environmental samples. Accounts of References Chemical Research, 52(4): 858–866 Prata J C, Silva A L, Walker T R, Duarte A C, Rocha-Santos T (2020). Alimi O S, Farner Budarz J, Hernandez L M, Tufenkji N (2018). COVID-19 pandemic repercussions on the use and management of Microplastics and nanoplastics in aquatic environments: Aggrega- plastics. Environmental Science & Technology, 54(13): 7760–7765 tion, deposition, and enhanced contaminant transport. Environmental Sangkham S (2020). Face mask and medical waste disposal during the Science & Technology, 52(4): 1704–1724 novel COVID-19 pandemic in Asia. Case Studies in Chemical and Andrady A L (2011). Microplastics in the marine environment. Marine Environmental Engineering, 2: 100052 Pollution Bulletin, 62(8): 1596–1605 Syed Q, Sopwith W, Regan M, Bellis M A (2003). Behind the mask. Brooks J T, Butler J C, Redfield R R (2020). Universal masking to Journey through an epidemic: Some observations of contrasting prevent SARS-CoV-2 transmission—the time is now. Journal of the public health responses to SARS. Journal of Epidemiology and American Medical Association, 324(7): 635–637 Community Health, 57(11): 855–856 Elachola H, Ebrahim S H, Gozzer E (2020). COVID-19: Facemask use Vethaak A D, Leslie H A (2016). Plastic debris is a human health issue. prevalence in international airports in Asia, Europe and the Americas, Environmental Science & Technology, 50(13): 6825–6826

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Frontiers of Environmental Science & EngineeringPubmed Central

Published: Feb 28, 2021

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