An estimated 1.5 billion face masks will be polluting the world’s oceans by the end of this year. That’s according to a new report by the marine conservation organisation OceansAsia, which suggests oceans in 2020 face an additional 4,680 to 6,240 tonnes of marine plastic pollution because of the use of the masks. Citing another report for market research, OceansAsia claimed that over 52 billion masks were made this year to meet the demand triggered by COVID-19 pandemic. A ‘’conservative’’ calculation posits that at least 3 per cent of those masks will end up in the ocean.

“Single-use face masks are made from a variety of meltblown plastics and are difficult to recycle due to both composition and risk of contamination and infection,” the report says. “These masks enter our oceans when they are littered or otherwise improperly discarded, when waste management systems are inadequate or non-existent, or when these systems become overwhelmed due to increased volumes of waste.” With each mask weighing three to four grams, the situation could lead to 6,800-plus tons of plastic pollution that “will take as long as 450 years to break down,” according to the report.

Each mask weighs between three and four grams and if the situation does not change, more than 6,800 tons of masks could end up in the oceans. In addition to the harmful effects of microplastic and nano plastic particles, elastic ear loops pose a “potential risk of wildlife entanglement,” the report said. The report cites some examples of marine animals killed by masks, including a “dead, bloated puffer fish” found entwined in a ring of disposable blue masks by volunteers cleaning Miami Beach in August. In addition, an autopsy of a malnourished penguin found dead on a beach in Brazil in September reportedly found a mask stuffed in the stomach. The report provides recommendations, including wearing a reusable and washable cloth mask “as much as possible”.

“Marine plastic pollution is devastating our oceans,” says Gary Stokes, COO of OceansAsia in the report. “Plastic pollution kills an estimated 100,000 marine mammals and turtles every year”. To counter this problem, the report suggests wearing reusable and washable fabric masks. “It is essential that we strive to reduce our use of single-use plastics, and we all have a role to play, said report.