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CBS News 8 - San Diego, CA News Station - KFMB Channel 8 | cbs8.com

Environmental concerns rise over impact of single-use disposable masks during pandemic

A year after most Americans began wearing masks, the rate of plastic disposables polluting San Diego beaches and harming wildlife has jumped dramatically.

SAN DIEGO COUNTY, Calif. — It was just over a year ago that masks became a staple of many peoples daily lives. Researchers estimate that at the height of the pandemic, nearly 200 billion masks were being used across the globe each month. In March of 2020, the World Health Organization even estimated that an additional 89 million disposable masks would be needed per month to meet proper PPE requirements. 

Now, environmental concerns are growing about the long-term effects of those billions of masks. In surgical settings, single-use disposable masks and gloves are a requirement, but environmentalists are continuing to urge Americans -- including across San Diego County -- to reduce their dependency on single-use items and follow steps to ensure any disposable items get to their proper disposal site. 

Credit: I Love A Clean San Diego

“It really just comes down to being safe but secondly getting the mask disposed of properly" says Ian Monahan of the environmental non-profit I Love A Clean San Diego. "Unfortunately, these things are made to be going to the landfill after they’re done. There is no other use, it goes in the trash.”

And it’s not just landfills that these masks end up in. They’re light enough to blow out of trash cans or even out of your hand and end up on our beaches and in the oceans. These single-use masks are made of microplastics and have strings attached that animals can get tangled and trapped in. Even if you’re throwing your mask in the trash, you should still be cutting the strings or ripping them off before throwing them away.

Monahan says they’ve noticed these changes during cleaning efforts across the county, adding that “last year there were numerous anomalies in our clean ups. One was disposable plastic masks, those were brand new, we were collecting them in droves. Two, a significant increase in plastic bags and plastic take out containers and Styrofoam. Overwhelming garbage systems in public parks, strewn all over the beaches, in gutters and curbs.”

Credit: I Love a Clean San Diego

The toll on wildlife continues to be seen around the world, with birds and marine life getting tangled and trapped in strings or straps from masks. An animal welfare group in the UK showed the effects on a seagull, trapped in the strings of a disposable mask, unable to walk and with swollen joints.

Ian Monahan of I Love A Clean San Diego reiterated, “Plastic is a pollutant. That is the bottom line. When it is a single use plastic it is meant to be thrown away. Here in San Diego County, our landfills are expected to close within many of our lifetimes. Closed. Be full, complete. What does that mean? What are we gonna do next?”

Beyond cutting ties off your masks, environmentalists suggest using reusable fabric masks and washing them along with clothes and opting for the reusable option with everything you do. They say the convenience of single-use plastics has a cost.

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