How pandemic litter has become ocean clutter

Just when we thought the plastic problem in our oceans couldn’t get much worse, along comes a pandemic that dumps around 1.56 billion single-use plastic face masks into our waters.

Ocean clutter

Around 8 million tonnes of plastic waste finds its way into our oceans each year, which equates to about one garbage truck per minute. It’s a massive problem that we urgently need to deal with. And the pandemic has added to this enormously. The situation is completely out of control.

Single-use face masks

In 2020, an estimated 52 billion single-use face masks were manufactured. Mostly in China, ironically. Made primarily of polypropylene, polyethylene or vinyl, they will take around 450 years to break down into microplastics that will remain in our oceans and never go away. Not only that but a research team at Swansea University in the UK has found that the dyes used to colour these marks leach heavy metals such as lead, antimony, cadmium and copper when immersed in water.

No technology exists to clean this up so it’s a problem that will have massive repercussions on our own food chain for generations to come. The face masks we are wearing today will be in our lunch tomorrow and no one knows how such a diet of microplastics will affect us.

According to, around 1.56 billion single-use polypropylene face masks found their way into the oceans in 2020 and they are causing havoc with marine life. As well as being ingested, the ear loops get caught around the necks of fish and animals, and entangled around the feet of sea birds. And that’s just face masks. There are also millions of tonnes of other types of PPE flowing into our oceans, such as discarded gloves, face shields, aprons, gowns and hand sanitizer bottles.

What can we do?

We’re likely to be wearing face masks for quite some time to come in many parts of the world, so some urgent changes in behaviour are needed.

How to dispose of single-use face masks

  • Dispose of them with care in a general waste bin
  • Don’t put them in a recycling bin – most recycling centres cannot process them
  • Cut off the straps before throwing them away (then wash your hands)
  • Check out TerraCycle’s PPC recycling program for disposable face masks and gloves

Reusable cloth masks
While single-use medical grade masks are essential for healthcare workers, many governments are encouraging the use of reusable cloth masks for more general purposes. These are widely available and a much more environmentally friendly choice.

Copyright © Clear Space Living Ltd, 2021

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About Karen Kingston

Karen Kingston is a leading expert in clutter clearing, space clearing, feng shui and healthy homes. Her two international bestselling books have combined sales of over three million copies in 26 languages and have established themselves as "must read" classics in their fields. Her best-known title, Clear Your Clutter with Feng Shui, is now in its fourth edition. She is best known for her perspective-changing insights and practical solutions that enable more conscious navigation of 21st-century living.
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