Environmentalists often talk about a “delicate balance of the ecosystem.”

Whether that is conceptual or real, the introduction of a new variable into any system causes newer variables to form and fluctuate according to its initial degree.

The COVID-19 coronavirus has been the new variable in the global system since Jan 2020.

It has quietened economies, debilitated industries, and terrorized communities all over the world. It upset the order of things. It created new normals—we work longer hours at home, cook more often, complete more to-be-read lists.. or Netflix.

We also wear masks when we go out.

Masks are vital to the mitigation of the pandemic. They come in many shapes, sizes, and materials.

However, the most common masks, of the disposable kind, are those made of polymer materials such as nonwoven polypropylene and polyethene. These masks have 2-3 layers, of which the middle layer is made of finer, melt-blown microfibres, which act as a filter to dangerous particles that could transmit the virus. The outer layers are of a coarser polymer.

Source: https://www.researchgate.net/

What Does The Mask Variable Mean To The Balance Of The Ecosystem?

It means that the microfibres and polymers in the masks are liable to pollute the environment around them. If waste management of these masks isn’t optimal, these masks are liable to contribute to the overarching microplastic pollution of the earth. This type of pollution is surreptitious. It avoids our detection because it spreads through microplastics and microfibres too small to the naked eye.

It is widespread because of how we manufacture items for our use.

Synthetic polymers and plastics are some of the most widely used materials in manufacturing, due to their versatility. They can fit any mould. They are also lightweight and mix with other materials to manufacture anything from textiles to car exteriors. Microplastics and microfibres form from their degradation. These small particles are then spread through improper waste management.

Source: https://www.weforum.org

How Do Microplastics And Microfibres Spread?

As mentioned before, this happens through improper waste management.

But what does that mean in plainer terms?

It means that we are not paying close attention to the channels through which we dispose of the products made of plastics, synthetic polymers, and synthetic fibers.

What are these channels?

  • Waterways like rivers
  • Landfills
  • Dumpsites
  • Haphazard litter
  • Incineration

But the worst of these channels, with the most potential to spread these micromaterials, are waterways.

Most factories and plants dispose of their plastic waste in rivers. These rivers eventually reach the sea, allowing the microplastics to percolate in the oceans. In several coastal areas, people litter the seas and beaches, which, in turn, spread the microplastics through the oceans.

People in Hong Kong were found discarding their COVID-19 masks earlier this year when the pandemic had just begun its march across the planet. Sometimes, even when we dispose of plastics in landfills, they spread through the groundwater, finding their way to the oceans.

Through the oceans, these microplastics and polymers are spread all across the planet. Microplastics were even found in Gentoo penguins in the Antarctic region and polar bears in the Arctic! The global microplastics problem has exploded in recent years.

It is arguably as big as the COVID-19 problem.

Source: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com

What is the Environmental Impact On The Oceans?

The environmental impact on the oceans is twofold: it endangers marine animal life as well as humans. Since humans consume marine animals, they are adversely affected by microplastic pollution. The food chain is chock full of the industrial materials we use on a daily basis. From cigarette lighters in sharks to bottles around turtles, the dangers are palpable.

The major players in oceanic pollution are China, Indonesia, and the Philippines. Millions of tonnes of plastic waste are expunged into the East Asian seas on a daily basis. Nations with high industrial activity, especially in the East Asian regions, are especially guilty of polluting the oceans. Now, with the addition of masks into the ecosystem, waste management needs to step up.

The Coordinating Body On The Seas Of East Asia (COBSEA) strives to regulate destructive industrial activity that builds up marine litter. East Asian nations adopted a revised Regional Action Plan On Marine Litter (RAP MALI) to bring about positive changes to the surrounding environment. The United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA) tries to unify the global marine litter problem, helping nations bring about policy changes in national industrial and waste protocols. The U.S. is also a major contributor to the microplastic pollution of the oceans.

How Can We Mitigate The Spread of Microplastics And Microfibres?

  • Production:The most crucial method of reducing the spread of these harmful synthetic substances across the globe would be to reduce production. Conservative policies can change the habits we have accrued over the past decade. Our gratuitous use of plastic has resulted in this fiasco. We would need to reduce our need for it, and stop it at the source.
  • Usage:This is the middle stage of any product’s life cycle. It pertains to any product that contains plastics and synthetic polymers like polypropylene. When using these products, it is best to ensure that you use them for a sufficient period of time. Doing so reduces wastage. As long as our products have extended lives, the longer we can put off disposing of them as waste. Maintenance, regular repair, and washing help.
  • Waste Management:The tertiary level of marine protection would be through responsible methods of waste disposal and management. Incineration, recycling, and compartmentalized disposal sites will smooth out the waste management process. We need to regulate rivers and their effluents. We need more garbage and effluent treatment plants.

Are There Any Alternatives?

European nations like the U.K. and France ordered billions of masks. To combat the transmission of COVD-19, governments forced themselves to distribute as many masks as possible. But the catch is that they are mostly synthetic polymer masks, with the potential to erode into microfibres and microplastics.

These nonwoven polypropylene masks are demonstrably safer than their cloth counterparts. But they are usually fit for single-use purposes. This means waste will accrue over time, as people will be disposing of these masks within a day or two of usage. The waste management systems in each nation may not be equipped to deal with this on a large scale.

What remains? Cotton cloth? Yes, you can wash them and, thus, re-use them. This extends their life cycle and reduces waste over time. But they have a lower filtering capacity than nonwoven polymer fibers. They are also expensive and harder to produce. One would need multiple layers to emulate the performance of a polymer fiber mask.

Why Hemp Masks Are A Viable Option

Given the higher costs of cotton cloth masks and the larger carbon footprint of the cotton crop, hemp stands as a salient alternative.

  • Hemp plants use only 25% of the water a cotton plant needs.
  • Hemp grows much faster, within 4 only months.
  • Hemp fibers are also more microbe-resistant.
  • Being entirely organic, hemp waste will not even affect marine life, since the fibers are less toxic to animal bodies.
  • Hemp is odourless, which doesn’t discomfort the mask user.

If we are to build a better future for the planet, it will rely largely on the health of the oceans. Balance is only achieved through the systematic neutralization of dangerous new variables in the ecosystem. What gives us a benefit can also take away a benefit from us. And so we should be mindful of that when we think of nonwoven polymer fiber masks.

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