Alarm bells went off among environmental scientists in February, as COVID-19 spread across Europe and inched toward North America.
Professor Tony Walker was still teaching in full lecture halls at Dalhousie University when he connected with a team of Portuguese researchers to investigate a parallel crisis about to unfold.
“We saw the writing on the wall,” Walker told HuffPost Canada.
“A global pandemic, 7.7 billion people. There’ll be a lot of masks.”
Based on early data from Italy, the researchers estimated the world would use 129 billion masks each month of the pandemic, according to their article published in June. However, like plastic bags and packaging, single-use masks would be almost impossible to recycle — the vast majority destined for landfills or littered.
And if only one per cent of the world’s masks are disposed of incorrectly, 10 million masks per month weighing close to 90,000 pounds will end up in nature, according to the World Wildlife Fund. That’s on top of the 52 billion pounds of plastic carried by rivers into oceans each year, washing up on shorelines, entangling wildlife and contaminating drinking water with microplastics.
This personal protective equipment (PPE) waste could also be contaminated with COVID-19, which can live on plastic for up to three days, said Walker.
“Indeed, mismanaged PPE can contribute to global plastic contamination but also act as potential vectors of the COVID-19 disease,” Walker and University of Aveiro researchers Joana Prata, Ana Silva, Armando Duarte and Teresa Rocha-Santos wrote in their article.
The amount of waste Canada would generate if the 37 million of us all relied on single-use masks to stop the spread of COVID-19 is staggering.
The researchers estimated one person will use about 17 masks a month, each roughly the equivalent weight of a maple leaf, or about 3.5 grams.
HuffPost crunched the numbers. In Canada that would mean:
- Every hour, we use about 6,700 pounds’ worth of masks — the weight of four large bull moose;
- Every week, we use one million pounds’ worth of masks — the weight of three blue whales, the world’s heaviest animal;
- And every year, we use 59 million pounds’ worth of masks — the weight of three Eiffel Towers.
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These “enormous, astonishing” amounts of masks are on the conservative side, Walker said.
“I would say now our paper grossly underestimated the numbers.”
Health Canada, for example, estimated the country produced 50 million pounds of face mask waste in the first four months of the pandemic alone.
‘Thrown around like candy wrappers’
When Toronto went into lockdown in March, partners and environmental scientists Justine Ammendolia and Jacquelyn Saturno broke up the monotony with walks around their neighbourhood.
In the beginning of the pandemic, they’d see a mask on the ground occasionally. They’ve both been studying littering and pollution for the last couple of years and wondered if masks would become “the next cigarette butt” or if the ones they spotted were just a fluke, Ammendolia said.
As public health officials began to encourage people to wear masks to stop the spread of COVID-19, Ammendolia and Saturno saw more and more PPE litter — predominantly disposable gloves, single-use masks and sanitary wipes — and recorded their daily tallies as part of a scientific survey, recently published in the journal Environmental Pollution.
In a four-week period in May and June, the pair recorded more than 1,300 items littered along a trail, in a few commercial parking lots, and on five-kilometre routes through their west end neighbourhood and around downtown hospitals.
They found the greatest number of gloves in a grocery store parking lot — “surprising given the absence of government guidelines from both local and national levels recommending use of this PPE item by the general public,” the pair wrote in their study.
Discarded masks were most prevalent around hospitals.
“The numbers are one thing, but it doesn’t describe the problems in the environment,” Ammendolia said.
Masks littered near waterways or sewer grates could cause blockages during storms and end up in larger water bodies, like Lake Ontario, said Saturno. Plus there’s the concern used face masks are considered biohazardous materials as they could be carrying the coronavirus.
“Which is shocking to see around the hospital districts, how much we’ve been able to find,” Saturno said.
“What took us off guard was the lack of regard in the city,” Ammendolia added. “Masks and gloves are thrown around like candy wrappers.”
They want to see more messaging from municipalities educating the public about how to safely dispose of PPE — in a tied plastic bag placed in the garbage.
And single-use plastic products aren’t necessary to protect against COVID-19, Saturno noted. Handwashing with soap and water and wearing reusable cotton masks are just as effective.
If the public wore reusable masks, waste would be reduced by 95 per cent, researchers at London’s Global University’s Plastic Waste Innovation Hub found. They took into account the additional energy and plastic required to package and transport both types of masks and machine washing of reusable masks.
In an effort to make PPE for healthcare workers compostable and recyclable, the federal government invited groups to submit ideas this fall and will grant money to successful applicants to develop the products. Innovation Science and Economic Development Canada said it received 90 proposals.
Winnipeg-based Precision ADM, a digital manufacturing firm, has begun shipping its first batch of 3D-printed N95 respirators, which health-care workers can sanitize and reuse up to 30 times, said Graeme Findlay, director of marketing. They’ll replace disposable masks that have to be thrown out between patients.
The company anticipates one N95 respirator will replace 120 to 300 disposable masks over the course of 30 shifts. Some components of the respirators are even recyclable.
Dorma Filtration has developed a N99 respirator (which filters out 99 per cent of aerosols) that also can be used 30 times, and is entirely recyclable.
“We decided that we not only wanted to build the best mask out there, but we also wanted it to be reusable to reduce our environmental footprint,” said Dr. René Caissie, a surgeon and co-founder of Dorma Filtration. “There is huge demand for it.”
The Montreal-based company is filling orders for 50,000 to 100,000 respirators and is also developing an in-house recycling program that will hopefully roll out in March.
UPDATE - Dec. 8, 2020: This story was updated to include information from a newly published study about personal protective equipment waste by Justine Ammendolia and Jacquelyn Saturno.