Face Mask floating in the ocean

Face masks: the other face behind the protective barrier against COVID-19

A young biotechnology engineer explains the impacts of face mask waste

Social IssuesCurrent events
By VoiceBox ·

Maye (not her real name)

Maye is a biotechnology engineer with a master's degree in biological sciences. She is Colombian, a scientist, and a lover of desserts and ice cream. She loves animals and that is why she enjoys spending time with her dogs.

Face masks: the other face behind the protective barrier against COVID-19

It is no secret to anybody that the pandemic brought with it the use of facemasks worldwide as a protective barrier against COVID-19, aiming to control the disease and the rate of infection in the population. Even in countries like Colombia, the use of facemasks is still mandatory for closed places. However, as a society, we have wondered what the environmental fate of the large amount of waste generated due to the pandemic is.

Facemasks are made of plastic, mainly polyethylene! Yes, more pollution. The masks have greater durability because they are resistant to liquids and after our use, their usual final destination is the open seas. Data from the NGO Oceans Asia revealed that during the first year of the pandemic, 1.56 billion facemasks ended up in the oceans and it is estimated that their decomposition could take up to 400 years (Bondaroff & S., 2020).

A lot of information circulated through the different media for the proper use of facemasks in times of COVID, but now, little to no information is disclosed about the correct disposal of facemasks. Their incorrect disposal brings negative impacts to the environment such as soil and water contamination. In these habitats, animals can ingest the masks by mistake, leading to their deaths. Although we’ve already seen heartbreaking images of species affected by plastic waste, single-use personal protection elements (such as face masks) used during the pandemic could worsen the issue of plastic pollution. Therefore, the proper management of waste in developing countries turns out to be quite a challenge, since according to recent research, 82% of the plastic waste generated during the COVID contingency will come from low- and middle-income countries, places where there is no effective waste management. This includes Colombia which has the 22nd place for estimated daily COVID-19 facemasks and global plastic waste generation. (Benson et al., 2021).

Many people, during this time of the pandemic, throw face masks into the street and bodies of water or even dispose of them together with organic household waste without properly separating them. This, in addition to harming the environment, also affected the spread of the virus, since studies showed that SARS-CoV-2 was viable for up to 3 days on plastic surfaces, that is, in biomedical waste (Rume & Islam, 2020).

It is important that governments worldwide initiate a campaign to promote the proper method of separation, handling and disposal of this plastic waste. Additionally, it is necessary to provide support to companies that have taken the initiative to collect, disinfect and reuse masks (@sermarea_movimiento, in Colombia) to prevent them from reaching the sea. However, these spectacular movements are slowed down by government health procedures and permits. Which is somewhat paradoxical, right?! Instead of everyone (government, industry and people) working for initiatives like these to go ahead, and help us combat pollution.

As young citizens, we must inform ourselves about what actions we can implement from home to give “trash masks” a second chance at life and actually take ownership of the fight against pollution. Let's spread knowledge in conversations with our closest core (family, friends, neighbors) so that we all know the causes that are facing this problem and we can even sow the seeds of change in the most sceptical people about the environmental problem and the consequences that we are already seeing all over the world.


Benson, N. U., Bassey, D. E., & Palanisami, T. (2021). COVID pollution: impact of COVID-19 pandemic on global plastic waste footprint. Heliyon, 7(2), e06343. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.heliyon.2021.e06343

Bondaroff, T. P., & S., C. (2020). Masks on the Beach: The impact of Covid-19 on Marine Palstic Pollution. In Oceansasia.

Rume, T., & Islam, S. M. D. U. (2020). Environmental effects of COVID-19 pandemic and potential strategies of sustainability. Heliyon, 6(9), e04965. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.heliyon.2020.e04965

Suggested Articles

  • man holding an empty wallet open
    Trying to Make It Through The Last Week Of The Month on an Insufficient Budget

    Trying to Make It Through The Last Week Of The Month on an Insufficient Budget

    A young person shares the struggle that many people are facing in a cost of living crisis

  • a woman holding a cardboard sign that reads "take a stand"
    Violence Against Women: When Will This Behaviour Start to be Punished More Severely?

    Violence Against Women: When Will This Behaviour Start to be Punished More Severely?

    Why a young writer feels that there's not enough being done to stop violence against women and girls

  • a search bar that reads "describe the image you want to create" with a blue background
    The Ethical Dilemma Behind Using AI Art

    The Ethical Dilemma Behind Using AI Art

    Why creating a portrait of yourself using AI might not be as harmless as you think