The impact face mask litter is having on Australia's environment

LITTER: A mask in a gutter in Ballarat Central. Photo: Kate Healy
LITTER: A mask in a gutter in Ballarat Central. Photo: Kate Healy

Masks are one of the best forms of protection we have had against transmission of the contagious COVID-19 but the long-term impact of disposable masks in the environment could be dire.

Disposable masks can be spotted blowing in the breeze in supermarket carparks, around lakes and even in remote parts of the bush. Whether they have slipped out of a pocket or bag or deliberately not been disposed of properly, they are increasingly posing a risk to the environment - including waterways and wildlife.

Prior to the pandemic the need to reduce single-use plastics for the benefit of the environment was in the limelight.

But with the requirement for a defense against the virus, single-use personal protective equipment (PPE), such as masks and gloves, have been bought and used extensively across the world.

According to the United Nations, disposable PPE is becoming an environmental issue.

It estimated that around 75 per cent of used disposable face masks would end up in landfill or in the ocean.

Aside from the environmental damage it also lists a potential financial hit to areas such as fisheries and tourism - it is estimated by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) to be around $40 billion.

The UNEP has urged governments to manage waste as an essential public service and as a "vital element in an effective emergency response".

Back home, the Victorian Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) has outlined tips for people who use single-use coverings, including masks and gloves. It advises that they should always be disposed of in a rubbish bin - they are not recyclable, so should not be disposed of in a recycling or green bin. To prevent wildlife from becoming entangled, the ear loops can be cut with scissors before they are put in the rubbish bin.

The EPA also states that if you or someone from your household has been infected with COVID-19, put the disposable item in a sealed plastic or paper bag before disposing of it in the bin and always wash your hands straight afterwards.

The most environmentally-friendly option, which avoids contributing to plastic pollution but affords protection from the virus, is to opt to use a reusable cloth mask or face covering, according to Sustainability Victoria. While there is an abundance of designs to purchase, they can also easily be made from spare fabric.

Stuart Horner, Project Officer - Industry, Grampians Central West Waste Resource Recovery Group, said the Grampians Central West Regional Litter and Illegal Dumping Plan was prepared with its 12 member councils, community groups and the general public to provide the direction to address litter and illegal dumping across the region. He said the group was continuing to work with the state government, councils, industry and the community to understand the impact of litter, to reduce waste and increase recycling.

"The Victorian Government has already banned single-use plastic bags, with further action on plastic pollution to be announced," he said in a statement.

It is also working with the EPA to encourage littering reports being made - including of disposable personal protective equipment - to prevent harm to the environment from pollution and waste.

  • Report littering to EPA via: the EPA website epa.vic.gov.au/report-pollution, the EPA Report Litter app or its 24-hour hotline on 1300 EPA VIC (1300 372 842).
This story The impact face mask litter is having on the environment first appeared on The Courier.