Are face masks the new plastic?

August 30, 2020

New Delhi: Over three billion people depend on marine and coastal biodiversity for their livelihoods. [1] The oceans absorb about 40 percent of the carbon dioxide produced by humans, buffering the impact of global warming They also serve as the world’s largest source of protein, with more than three billion people depending on them for their primary source of protein.[2] India has a coastline of about 7,517km, which sustains and provide a source of livelihood to over 250 million people.[3]

Goal 14 of the SDG 2030 target is conservation and sustainable use of the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development. It primarily focuses on preventing marine pollution, ending illegal and destructive fishing practices, and sustainably managing and protecting marine and coastal ecosystems while attempting to improve the overall marine health.[1] With such a long coastline and being the second largest producer of fish in the world, it is imperative for India to formulate and implement strong and effective marine policies. While a large coastline signals a large number of people being dependent on the oceans for their livelihoods, it also makes India face an enormous challenge of cleaning up its seas.

Marine litter is a growing environmental concerns for India. Dumping of about 600,000 tonnes of plastic waste annually into the oceans is a major major issue and the Government of India has taken quite a few initiatives to prevent marine pollution. India is a signatory member to MARPOL (International Convention on Prevention of Marine Pollution). Through the coastal Ocean Monitoring and Prediction System, levels of marine pollution are being monitored at various locations along India’s coastline. Mechanisms like the Merchant Shipping Rules (2009), Online Oil Spill Advisory System, National Oil Spill Disaster Contingency Plan (2014) make sure that there are necessary regulations in place to combat marine/oil pollution across India’s oceans.[4]

As the world struggles to cope with Covid pandemic, the discarded single-use face masks which were used to contain the spread of the virus are posing a huge threat to the marine life. Just like how plastic does not disappear but rather slowly breaks down into micro-plastics and enters the food chains, these masks contain polypropylene, which does not break down quickly. All the used face masks, like almost all our waste, ends up in the oceans.

While the use of face masks has taken a priority all over the world to contain the spread of Covid-19, it is important that they are correctly disposed off after use. In March 2020, the Central Pollution Control Board of India issued guidelines on the disposal of Covid-19 related waste. While the Covid-19 waste disposal is applicable to the isolation centres, the home quarantined/positive and suspected cases and the masks being used by the normal people on an everyday basis are not being discarded in a proper way.[6] These masks will end up entering our landfills and oceans and in no time would create a completely new branch of marine litter.

While the use of such masks is inevitable at this time, it is imperative, for the sake of protecting our marine life and ecosystems that we devise a system to carefully discard the face masks being used during the pandemic.



[2] SDG India Index & Dashboard 2019-20, Niti Aayog. Pg 179

[4] Ibid

[5] Ibid

[6] Ipshita Chaturvedi, (2020). Covid-19 and India: The Challenge of Marine Debris. National Maritime Foundation.