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Billions of disposable masks produced monthly could lead to environmental damage

Plastic fibers in disposable masks could harm wildlife
Published: Mar. 23, 2021 at 6:39 PM MDT
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TWIN FALLS, Idaho (KMVT/KSVT) — “Right now on a worldwide basis, humans are producing 129 billion masks every month,” said Alan Kolok who is the Director of the Idaho Water Resources Research Institute at the University of Idaho in Moscow.

One hundred and twenty nine billion masks boils down to roughly 15 masks per person on the planet being produced every month. It’s how disposable masks are created which can lead to environmental issues, however.

“A mask is really three layers,” Kolok said. “There’s a dark blue outer layer and a light inner layer with a matrix in-between. It’s like a sandwich with two pieces of bread and baloney in the middle. That baloney in this case is plastic fibers.”

It’s those plastic fibers which pose the problem.

“Many of these plastic fibers don’t degrade,” Kolok said.

Because those fibers stay intact, wildlife can be harmed, and it all starts at the bottom of the food chain.

“If you can see yourself as a small fish, you can’t tell the difference between those fibers and a worm...so you eat it,” Kolok said.

What starts as an issue at the bottom of the food chain also inevitably works it’s way towards the top.

“If you block the digestive system of an animal, the animal can’t eat and it’s going to die,” Kolok said. “If you think of doing that on an ecosystem level, the bottom of the food chain falls out. When that happens, the larger fish or predatory birds don’t have anything to eat.”

Plastic fibers can also lead to larger bacterial and fungal colonies, some of which can cause disease.

“If you’re in agriculture and using that (infected) water for your animals, that could potentially be a problem,” Kolok said.

Kolok added he’s not advising to slow down the production of masks and that they are necessary to slow down the spread of COVID-19.

The Idaho Department of Environmental Quality offers suggestions for how you can reduce your mask pollution.

You can make your own cloth mask as an eco-friendly solution. You can also purchase a reusable mask. If that’s not possible, then ensuring your disposable masks are thrown away in the trash helps to reduce the amount of litter in the environment.

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