Masks are great, but what happens when we try to throw out a billion masks at once?
- A new study suggests that the huge numbers of disposable masks we're using may end up polluting the environment.
- The materials used to make some of these masks may be especially disposed to break down into microplastic bits.
- Once those plastic bits get into the environment they end up everywhere, including inside people.
Remember all that “Nature is healing” stuff from last year? It didn't last long.<img class="rm-lazyloadable-image rm-shortcode" type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTgyMDA5My9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY3MjYyMzI2OX0.iigYnQKviVAqTa9FMu3iPLlSaNXk2lNePiSQBPY_xCw/img.jpg?width=980" id="a566b" width="1024" height="683" data-rm-shortcode-id="4372020006f233efeb2c97e3ed0716f1" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Gary Stokes, founder of the environmental group Oceans Asia, poses with discarded face masks he found on a beach in the residential area of Discovery Bay on the outlying Lantau island in Hong Kong.
Credit: ANTHONY WALLACE/AFP via Getty Images<p> According to recent studies, humanity is going through 129 billion face masks a month, which works out to three million a minute. While we go through a lot of plastics in a month, the number of plastic bottles we use has been estimated at 43 billion a month, a large fraction of those have well-known guidelines around them promoting recycling.</p><p> Such information doesn't exist for masks, making it likely that most of them are ending up in the <a href="https://phys.org/news/2021-03-masks-plastic-timebomb.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">trash</a>.</p><p>Like any other object with plastic in it, improper disposal can cause the plastic to enter the environment. Where the tiny bits of plastics spread into water and soil before eventually working their way into animals. The authors of this <a href="https://link.springer.com/content/pdf/10.1007/s11783-021-1413-7.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">study</a>, doctors Elvis Genbo Xu of the University of Southern Denmark and Zhiyong Jason Ren of Princeton, argue that the specifications of these masks make them particularly likely to contribute to plastic pollution:</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"A newer and bigger concern is that the masks are directly made from microsized plastic fibers (thickness of ~1 to 10 micrometers). When breaking down in the environment, the mask may release more micro-sized plastics, easier and faster than bulk plastics like plastic bags. Such impacts can be worsened by a new-generation mask, nanomasks, which directly use nano-sized plastic fibers (with a diameter smaller than 1 micrometer) and add a new source of nanoplastic pollution."</p><p>At the moment, no data on how much masks have contributed to the amount of plastic in the environment exists. </p><p> The authors suggest that there are steps to be taken to prevent this problem from getting out of control. They include helping people switch from disposable plastic masks to reusable cloth ones, inventing biodegradable masks, designating special disposal areas for masks, and standardizing waste processing procedures concerning these plastics. </p>
Why should we care?<iframe width="730" height="430" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/tuVuxKTJeBI" frameborder="0" allow="accelerometer; autoplay; clipboard-write; encrypted-media; gyroscope; picture-in-picture" allowfullscreen></iframe><p> Plastic pollution is pretty terrible for the <a href="https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/article/plastic-pollution" target="_blank">environment</a>. Animals can confuse small bits of plastic for food, consuming it instead of something nourishing and starving to death as their stomachs fill. The chemicals in plastics can also cause various ailments if consumed, even if the amount eaten isn't enough to kill the animal. </p><p>Before you say that you don't care about fish, birds, or any other kind of wildlife, remember that studies are finding ever-increasing amounts of <a href="https://bigthink.com/surprising-science/microplastics-in-placenta" target="_blank">plastic in people</a>, too. Many of the chemicals in these plastics are associated with health risks, including cardiovascular diseases and cancer. <br> </p><p>The benefits of face masks are beyond debate, but the side effects of throwing out so many disposable masks may prove to be quite terrible if we're not careful. </p>
More evidence that we're drowning in microplastic particles.
- Italian researchers have discovered microplastic particles in human placenta.
- Out of six collected placentas, four contained colored plastic microparticles.
- That petrochemical pollutants are present in such a critically important organ is alarming.
The study<p>The authors of the Italian study collected placentas from six mothers. They did this in a plastic-free environment so as to avoid contamination. Doctors and midwives wearing cotton gloves performed the collection from mothers covered only in cotton towels. Metal clippers and scalpels were used.</p><p>The six placentas were evaluated using microspectroscopy. Samples from four of the placentas contained colored microplastics. A total of 12 pieces, between 5 and 10 micrometers, were collected — at this size, the contaminants were small enough to be carried in the mother's or child's bloodstream.</p><p>Considering that the samples constituted just about 4 percent of the organs, it's reasonable to suspect that the researchers' findings represent just the tip of the iceberg.</p><p>Four of the pieces were found in tissues on the maternal side, the outside of the placenta, and five were found in the space in which the fetus had been. The remaining three were located in the fine membrane wall surrounding the amniotic fluid in the placenta.</p><p>All of the microplastics were colored, dyed red, blue, orange, and pink, but beyond that the researchers were only partially able to identify the materials with greater specificity, writing, "All of them were pigmented; three were identified as stained polypropylene a thermoplastic polymer, while for the other nine it was possible to identify only the pigments, which were all used for man-made coatings, paints, adhesives, plasters, finger paints, polymers and cosmetics and personal care products."</p><p>Understanding how the microplastics found their way in the mothers' placentas is beyond the scope of the research, but there's plenty of evidence that plastics are everywhere, from the products we use to the <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/11/climate/airborne-plastic-pollution.html" target="_blank">air we breathe</a>, and so on. One study found that after babies are born, the infusion of microplastics begins right away— <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/oct/19/bottle-fed-babies-swallow-millions-microplastics-day-study" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">millions of particles</a> a day are swallowed by infants drinking form plastic bottles.</p><img class="rm-lazyloadable-image rm-shortcode" type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDk5NTgxNC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1OTMzNzcwMX0.iqK3zk_b6F757ckJ1LFT4eDOTiv48oBPFtNHvP5e2d0/img.jpg?width=980" id="6f6b7" width="1440" height="1080" data-rm-shortcode-id="f229c2017c97eb6afa369d375f91f8c7" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Credit: Jonathan/Adobe Stock
A critical environment<p>The placenta plays a <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/15/health/the-push-to-understand-the-placenta.html" target="_blank">critical role</a> in the development of a fetus, delivering nutrition and oxygen, handling waste disposal, and generally doing the job of keeping the fetus alive until its own organs develop enough to take over. The placenta also keeps the infant free of contaminants, or is supposed to, filtering out pathogens. It is also believed to be instrumental in facilitating the myriad chemical process involved in fetal development.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Due to the crucial role of placenta in supporting the foetus's development and in acting as an interface with the external environment, the presence of potentially harmful plastic particles is a matter of great concern. Further studies need to be performed to assess if the presence of microplastics may trigger immune responses or may lead to the release of toxic contaminants, resulting in harm." — Ragusa, et al.</p><p>Study leader Antonio Ragusa, of the San Giovanni Calibita Fatebenefratelli hospital in Rome <a href="https://www.repubblica.it/salute/2020/12/09/news/trovate_per_la_prima_volta_microplastiche_nella_placenta_umana-277658153/" target="_blank">says</a>, "It is like having a cyborg baby: no longer composed only of human cells, but a mixture of biological and inorganic entities." He adds, "The mothers were shocked."</p><p>Chemists Elizabeth Salter Green tells <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/dec/22/microplastics-revealed-in-placentas-unborn-babies" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">The Guardian</a>, "Babies are being born pre-polluted. The study was very small but nevertheless flags a very worrying concern."</p>
The researchers hope to develop a no-trace plastic to curtail marine pollution and ghost fishing.
- Cornell University chemists have developed a polymer with the strength of industrial-grade plastics but degrades quickly in sunlight.
- They hope the plastic will one day be used to make fishing nets that leave no environmental trace.
- Their research joins other programs and initiatives aimed at restoring our oceans.
A lot of hard work for (hopefully) nothing<img class="rm-lazyloadable-image rm-shortcode" type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzE2MjMyNi9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY2NDIxOTI2N30.sNuhGWLlXUayYhfuw8yb8lllGjOmPkXEedeCvzOSwTw/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C96%2C0%2C0&height=700" id="faa6d" width="1245" height="700" data-rm-shortcode-id="b5302295f1955f869e5f7d01d221b782" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Commercial fishing nets are made of polymers that are strong but take hundreds of years to degrade.
The deadliest catch<img class="rm-lazyloadable-image rm-shortcode" type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzE2MjMyOC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzNzQ5MzY2MX0.6_DlCIrKzb7CIqE2-ZDPXYYsV7ao2xtko0ME9odJOj4/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C763%2C0%2C519&height=700" id="0cbe4" width="1245" height="700" data-rm-shortcode-id="849663a20c12c4e92bacd0851e45d341" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
A sea turtle caught in ghost gear.
Not too late<img class="rm-lazyloadable-image rm-shortcode" type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzE2MjMyMi9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1MTA3MDcxNn0.bzbtBMEFpS7L-2E5g2K4IdLc0qnxgVrJdf1ajZRlWnc/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C0%2C0%2C579&height=700" id="03101" width="1245" height="700" data-rm-shortcode-id="4cd1d82886e3c42b589b1aad10bf3e38" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Volunteers collect rubbish from the Aegean sea to protect biodiversity.
These compostable espresso pods are the eco-friendly way to get your caffeine fix.
- The coffee pod revolution saved us time and effort but has been horrible for the environment.
- The single-use plastics used in most pods sit in landfills for years.
- Fortunately, a new wave of eco-friendly compostable pods is coming to the market.
A new study says that it could be centuries before millions of the classic toys submerged in the Earth's seas disintegrate.
- A new study by researchers from the University of Plymouth estimates that it could be up to 1,300 years before LEGO pieces lost to the sea disintegrate.
- Researchers collected fifty LEGO pieces washed up on beaches in southwest England and compared them to archived blocks in their original condition.
- The classic children's toy is made of an incredibly durable material called acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS), a rock-solid polymer.