Researchers have begun to see a spike in the number of discarded surgical masks washing up on Hong Kong beaches since the COVID-19 pandemic began at the end of 2019.
Saanich researcher Teale Phelps Bondaroff works as the director of OceansAsia – a non-profit organization focused on marine issues including organized crime involving sea creatures.
Over the past few weeks, researchers have been noticing large numbers of surgical masks washing up on the Soko Islands – a group of islands off the coast of Hong Kong, Phelps Bondaroff explained.
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He added that the Soko Islands are only accessible by boat and that the beaches are constantly covered in piles of garbage. OceansAsia researchers have been doing plastic surveys on the beach every few weeks in an effort to track the source of the trash and find out how it ends up there, Phelps Bondaroff said.
At the end of February, one of his colleagues picked up 70 surgical masks in a small stretch of beach in just one day. This was about six weeks after the virus began to spread rapidly in the region and there was a cultural shift to more people wearing masks regularly, Phelps Bondaroff explained. He added that many of the masks being used are made of polypropylene – a plastic that takes a long time to break down and can become coated in toxins.
Aside from the masks ending up on the beaches, they’re also being ingested by porpoises and other sea animals, he said pointing out that this demonstrates the environmental effects of COVID-19 and the flaws in waste management.
Phelps Bondaroff pointed out that even if people are more careful about disposing of their masks, it won’t solve the garbage problem on the Soko Island beaches. He noted that about 80-million pieces of plastic end up in the oceans on a daily basis.
The increased number of discarded masks on the beaches “underscores the weaknesses in the waste management supply chain,” Phelps Bondaroff said.
He’s hopeful that this kind of research helps to bring about improvements to waste management globally.
Phelps Bondaroff also sees this as an opportunity to remind people to follow advice from health officials for proper mask disposal so masks don’t start piling up on beaches in other parts of the world.
The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends removing face masks by the straps, avoiding touching the front of the mask as it may be contaminated and placing it in a closed bin.
“Never reuse single-use masks and discard them immediately,” said Christine Francis, infection prevention and control consultant, in an informational video produced by WHO.