The Terrible Environmental Cost of COVID-19

Dr. Munr Kazmir
4 min readMar 10, 2021

Disposable masks are ending up in our waterways at an alarming rate. Comprised of micro-plastics, they will take 450 years to decompose.

Photo by Elizabeth McDaniel on Unsplash.

Back in May of last year, some predicted that COVID-19 would be a disaster for the environmental movement. The signs were hard to miss. Littering was suddenly back, with disposable masks and gloves adorning parking lots and roadsides everywhere. Single-use plastics, which had been going out of vogue for some time, were suddenly back as well.

Now, nearly a year since COVID-19 protective measures began in earnest, the evidence of COVID-19’s negative impact on the environment is undeniable.

Masks, PPE, gloves and other disposable items are an essential part of the COVID-19 response, but environmental groups are warning individuals who don’t work in healthcare about the environmental dangers of single-use face masks.

Like much of our other trash, discarded masks are comprised of micro-plastics, which do not break down and often end up in waterways and oceans. Divers in the Philippines have recently found coral reefs covered with personal protective equipment.

“Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) is washing up on coral reefs close to the Philippine capital, Manila,” BBC News reported this week. “According to an estimate by the Asian Development Bank, during the peak of the Covid-19 outbreak, the city could have been generating up to 280 tonnes of extra medical waste per day.”

BBC’s video footage shows divers from the Anilao Scuba Dive Centre explaining how when they went to study the reef they found dozens of masks that had been there for months. According to Howard Johnson, BBC’s Philippines correspondent, the face masks will either end up in landfill or back in the sea.

“That’s a problem because polymers inside the surgical masks are breaking down into microplastics, easily consumed by marine wildlife and the coral reefs that nurture them,” Johnson reported.

Aside from eating the masks, images have circulated online of various animals trapped in the ear loop of face masks.