Main image: shows a face mask made up of 500 face mask pictures taken from the Litterati app.
A new study has found face mask litter increased by 9,000% from March to October 2020.
It shows a direct link between national legislation and the occurrence of discarded waste that included face masks and other personal protective equipment (PPE) related to Covid-19.
Researchers from the University of Portsmouth are urging governments to put in place policies and legislation for the disposal of littered face masks when making the wearing of them mandatory.
Linking litter to policy
The study, published today (09 December) in the journal Nature Sustainability, was based on findings from two open source databases: the extensive ‘COVID-19 Government Response Tracker’ and a litter collection app called Litterati.
More than two million pieces of litter were collected across 11 countries, which between them had a range of Covid-19 policy responses.
Using these databases, researchers were able to map the countries’ policy responses (lockdown severity, mask policies) and gain a base line of litter proportions from September 2019 through the first six months of the pandemic.
‘Overall the study shows the impact that legislating the use of items such as masks can have on their occurrence as litter. We found that littered masks had an exponential increase from March 2020, resulting in an 84-fold increase by October 2020. There is a clear need to ensure that requiring the use of these items is accompanied with education campaigns to limit their release into the environment.’
DR KEIRON ROBERTS
Lead researcher and lecturer in Sustainability and the Built Environment at the University of Portsmouth
The impact of legislation
Explaining the background for the research, lead researcher Dr Roberts said: ‘The negative impacts of Covid-19 on our daily lives are well known. In April 2020, it was beginning to appear that there were some small positives in the decrease in human activity caused by lockdown, with improvements in air quality and water quality. Reduced human activity also saw reports of animals coming back to towns and cities.
‘At the same time, reports of masks and gloves appearing on beaches and streets, where they hadn’t been before, started to emerge. As Covid-19 spread, so did the news reports of this new type of litter. National lockdowns made it incredibly difficult to go out and visit these places to gather evidence of what were anecdotal accounts.’
Having struggled to collect data in the field, the researchers turned to the online databases.
Dr Roberts said: ‘This data allowed us to look at the Covid-19 litter trends on a monthly basis. We then matched up the WHO announcements and national policy and lockdown restrictions to see how this impacted litter proportions. It wasn’t a surprise to see mask litter appear, but what did surprise us was how national legislation had dramatically impacted the occurrence of mask litter.’