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Environmentalists concerned about pollution created by disposable masks

Masks discarded in shopping plaza parking lots in Victor.
Max Schulte/WXXI News
Masks discarded in shopping plaza parking lots in Victor.

On Earth Day, environmentalists are calling attention to the pollution caused by disposable face masks.

The marine conservation organization Oceans Asiaestimatesthat 1.5 billion of them ended up in the world's oceans in 2020.

Most disposable masks are made from multiple types of plastic.

"It makes it virtually impossible to actually recycle, so it's very difficult to dispose of in an environmentally friendly manner," said Mike Waller, Rochester Regional Health's director of sustainability.

Waller recommends that people choose reusable masks when possible or opt for disposable masks made from natural fibers such as hemp.

Hospitals and other health care settings rely on disposable masks that have been tested to meet certain safety standards.

"The biggest requirement in health care is to prove that, say, blood which is accidentally sprayed on the mask won't seep through to the person that's wearing it," Waller said.

Environmental experts urge people to cut the ear loops off their masks before throwing them in the trash. Sea turtles, birds, and other marine wildlife can become entangled in the loops.

Beth Adams joined WXXI as host of Morning Edition in 2012 after a more than two-decade radio career. She was the longtime host of the WHAM Morning News in Rochester. Her career also took her from radio stations in Elmira, New York, to Miami, Florida.