Protect Yourself, Save the World! 

Sigija Kalniņa, Emīlija Estere Pole, Alise Rutka, Līga Uzuliņa, Dāvids Šaršūns, Latvia, 11-14 years

The Problem of Used Face Masks Nowadays

Disposable face masks have become an integral component of our lives. We use them in public places every day, but the service time of them is just a few hours so they have become a widespread waste position. Almost everyone has seen a used face mask dropped on the ground. Currently protecting our own and other people’s health, we don’t have to forget about saving our shared house – the planet Earth. What to do not to increase waste piles? The pupils from Ogresgals Basic School Grade 5 came together and found a solution to the face masks pollution problem.

Masks in the park of Ogresgals parish. Photo: Līga Uzuliņa

Longevity of Masks and Environmental Impact

It might seem that disposable face masks are made of paper, but they consist of polypropylene which does not decompose in nature. Mass accumulation of plastic waste in the environment and long decomposition time make this problem serious. Now approximately 130 milliard disposable face masks are used in the world daily and the biggest problem is that in the environment they do not decompose up to 450 years.[1]

The COVID-19 pandemic has aggravated the problem not just on land but in the seas and oceans too. Disposable face masks which should protect us from the virus often get into the water where they are eaten or tangled by marine animals. According to United Nations published calculations in 2017 there are 51 billion microplastic parts in the seas which is 500 times the number of stars in the galaxy. [2]

A sharp increase in the amount of mask waste on the shores of the Baltic Sea points the leader of the campaign ‘’My Sea’’ run by the Foundation for Environmental Education Jānis Ulme:’’Monitoring of marine polluting waste on the coast of the Baltic Sea in 2021 we found a large amount of mask waste on 12 out of 43 surveyed beaches. That is three times more than a year ago. It is clear – as mask waste increases microplastics enter the marine fish and bird food chain’’. 

It is known about 10 million tons of waste ends up in the seas and oceans every year[3] and the amount of waste continues to increase.

Ogresgals basic school performance in reducing the release of masks into the environment

During the COVID-19 pandemic there were observed improperly discarded and released into the environment face masks in local Ogresgals parish. So, the Grade 5 pupils thought what to do. 

They made research and implemented the campaign “Protect Yourself, Save the World!” where they offered their solution for reducing the pollution caused by masks.

In early January they made a special waste box for used face masks. The box was located at the school front doors to be comfortable discarding the mask before going home. Pupils told their friends about the effects of the masks on the environment, registered the number and type of masks discarded every week and drew conclusions.

Waste box for used face masks. Photo: Sigija Kalniņa

The pupils researched the habits of wearing protective masks at school and home by making a survey. They informed others how to dispose of used face masks properly. The survey showed that 78, 9% respondents are concerned about the pollution caused by face masks nowadays and they have thought about it before the survey.

The results of the survey show that the most part of the participants know how to throw out masks properly and 75% of them throw masks at home in their household waste bins, but 25% of masks are discarded elsewhere that are likely to be incorrectly disposed also end up in the environment. 

However, it is gratifying that the number of masks discarded per week increased after completing the questionnaire as well as there were more masks that were thrown away properly (with cut ear loops). This shows that pupils care about the impacts of wasted face masks on the environment, their damage to nature, animals and groundwater. Many pupils are ready to get involved in nature protection willingly with only the necessary knowledge on how to do it and encouragement. The number of masks dropped off at school and in the local parish decreased.

In total 459 used masks were collected at school in 10 weeks.

Collected masks in the campaign’’ Protect Yourself, Save the World!’’.

What to do with collected masks?

The question arose – what to do with the collected masks? It was necessary to research where to put them. Pupils discovered that there are researches on mask recycling, for example, in road construction in Latvia. The doctor of Institute of Design Technologies and Riga Technical University Faculty of Materials Science and Applied Chemistry Dr -Ing Ilze Baltiņa in her research ’’Choice of personal protective equipment: What to pay attention to?’’ points out:’’ In road construction 3 million masks are needed to build 1km road. This prevents 93 tons of waste from entering the environment’’.[4] The research also shows that polypropylene masks can be recycled into plastic to make, for example, face shields or school furniture. 

According to marketing manager of the national waste management company ’’Green Belt’’ Laima Kubuliņa, “used face masks qualify as ordinary household waste except special cases in medicine when they are hazardous waste and they have special collection and disposal regulations. Daily used masks should be thrown in a general waste container and no separate collection of used masks is planned in Latvia. Disposable face masks consist of various composite materials and their recycling is complicated. In some cases, the used face masks are burned in special equipment, thus obtaining heat.” Ogresgals basic school pupils also brought collected in the campaign masks to the Getliņi landfill for recycling where they will be used to produce heat and energy for growing cucumbers and tomatoes all year round.

During the campaign, pupils drew attention to the pollution of nature with everyday items – used face masks. They encouraged others to pay attention and take an action. We can all change the future of our planet Earth by each being active in our parish, city, or country. Hopefully, we will have an end to the pandemic soon and mask pollution will no longer be relevant. However, even then let’s save the world to protect ourselves as well!

Resources used:

[1] Newssk. 31. maijs 2021. Maskas jūrā kļuva vairāk kā medūzas. 29.03.2022.

[2] Eiropas parlaments. 22.novembris 2018. Mikroplastmasa: izcelsmes avoti, ietekme un risinājumi. 29.03.2022.

[3] Eiropas vides aģentūra. 5. Novembris 2021. Jūru piesārņojošie atkritumi. 29.03.2022.

[4] Dr. Ilze Baltiņa. 5. Oktobris 2021. IAL materiālu izvēle: kam pievērst uzmanību. Rīgas Tehniskā Universitāte, Dizaina tehnoloģiju institūts. 29.03.2022.

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