Tony Bailie's Take on Nature: Living in the plastic age

Billions of disposable face-coverings have been used since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, with some finding their way into the sea - and eventually, perhaps, on to our dinner table

A DOG playing with a blue face-covering as it was being walked along a country road is symbolic of a side effect of the measures we have all been asked to take in the past year to tackle the ongoing global pandemic.

This is not to question the need for wearing masks in these challenging times - if it helps keep me and other people safe then I am all for it.

However, a casual walk through our towns and cities and even into the mountains and wild places will usually result in a sighting of the distinctive blue masks or the more personalised and washable ones that many people prefer.

According to the journal Science Daily a mind-boggling 129 billion masks are used globally every month and most of these are the disposable variety that are made from plastic microfibres.

In the times of a pandemic needs must, but these microfibres are not easily degradable and failure to dispose of them properly means that they are seeping out into our global ecosystems.

We all know how to responsibly dispose of plastic bottles and bags - not everyone adheres to that, but there has in general been a huge public buy-in to recycling plastics and there has been a dramatic fall in plastic-bag use.

However, there are no clear guidelines on how we should dispose of masks and other face coverings.

Plastic waste gets broken down into harmful microparticles

Environmental toxicologist Elvis Genbo Xu from the University of Southern Denmark said researchers do not yet know how masks contribute to the large number of plastic particles detected in the environment - simply because no data on mask degradation in nature exists.

"But we know that, like other plastic debris, disposable masks may also accumulate and release harmful chemical and biological substances, such as bisphenol A, heavy metals, as well as pathogenic micro-organisms. These may pose indirect adverse impacts on plants, animals and humans," he said.

Research carried out at University College Cork and published last week found worrying levels of microplastics on Ireland's freshwater plants and animals. And the researchers warned of potential repercussions for the entire food chain and ultimately, the human population.

The study (which was not specifically focused on the issue of masks but plastics in general) looked at the impacts of microplastics on the Irish freshwater plant duckweed and found that hundreds of small plastics can stick to just a few square millimetres of plant surface.

Lead researcher Prof Marcel Jansen said the finding that microplastics adhere to plant surfaces is "alarming" because other creatures are feeding on these plants and ingesting the microplastics.

The team found that when a freshwater crustacean Gammarus feeds on duckweed, it ingests these plastic particles.

Investigations by Dr Alicia Mateos-Cárdenas, the PhD researcher on the project, showed that once ingested by Gammarus, microplastics are very quickly broken down into smaller nanoplastics, which is even more worrying as nanoplastics are small enough to enter living cells, potentially causing metabolic disruption.

Prof Jansen said: "Once plastics are ingested and fragmented into microscopic pieces there is currently nothing that can be done to catch these pieces of plastics.

"Therefore the only way to stop the pollution of our freshwater environment is to remove the larger plastics before they disintegrate. As a society, we need to prevent plastic pollution of the environment by reducing, reusing and recycling plastics."

The Danish research suggests that the lack of policy and clear guidelines for the disposal of face coverings, while not yet quantifiable, is adding to the problem.

According to Science Daily, if not disposed of for recycling, like other plastic wastes, disposable masks can end up in the environment, freshwater systems and oceans, where weathering can generate a large number of micro-sized particles and, in just a few weeks, further fragment into nanoplastics - and these will end up in the food chain and possibly on our dinner tables.

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