Before sunrise, a small fishing boat sets out to the calm Tai O waters. On it, Cheung awaits the right moment to cast his net. The light on his boat is reflected in the dark charcoal sea, the tides ebb and flow, glistening like black diamonds. When he spots a floating blue plastic facemask, without breaking the tranquility, he steers away from it. Later, when he enters a sea of plastic waste, he manoeuvres skillfully through them. It is casual, it is common, it is the daily reality of a Hong Kong fisherman.
An ocean of face masks
In December 2020, OceansAsia, a Hong Kong-based marine conservation organisation, released a report estimating that there would be roughly 1.56 billion face masks flooding the oceans around the globe in that year alone.
Ultimately, this would result in an additional 4,680 to 6,240 metric tonnes of marine plastic pollution, and exacerbate the plastic crisis that already saw an estimated 12 million metric tonnes of plastic entering the oceans each year.
A similar research done by the City University of Hong Kong’s School of Energy and Environment at the time added that the pollution stemming from the disposal of surgical face masks into the ocean would be tantamount to seriously polluting more than 54,800 Olympic swimming pools of seawater annually.
The problem remains acute now, but it has become harder to quantify. OceansAsia’s report was feasible because it commenced in February, the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak in Hong Kong. The team at OceansAsia would visit the Soko Islands, south of Lantau, every two weeks for five months for data collection. Yet now, two years later, who knows how long those masks have been on the beach?
“We can’t really see the frequency unless we actually get out, stay at one beach and then clean it and then do it again and clean it, then we can see the frequent signals coming in,” Gary Stokes, OceansAsia’s director of operations, told FairPlanet.
Additionally, when it comes to running a 2022 update, the team is missing two big numbers: reliable mask production numbers and littering rates.
Teale Phelps Bondaroff, director of research at OceansAsia, explained that they were able to find reasonable estimates as to how many masks were made in 2020. Since then, more conflicting and inaccurate numbers in different parts of the world surfaced as the pandemic escalated.
Bondaroff added that the original littering rates they employed might not be able to reflect the real situation globally.
“We used three percent, which is very conservative. In some countries, that’s the norm. But in many places, as much as 25 to 50 percent of plastic enters the environment,” says Bondaroff.
The increased ambiguity leads to fewer reports on plastic facemasks in the ocean, but that does not mean there are fewer floating masks. Back in Tai O, Cheung, who refuses to give his full name, sees more and more masks drifting in the ocean by the day. “In every 24 to 30 kilograms of marine life I have caught for my business, it is bound to have about 20 plastic face masks,” he says, “Even though I try to avoid them, I still see and accidentally catch them every day ever since Covid started.”
Microplastics raise alarms
The worrisome part is the material of the plastic face masks. “It’s melt blown polypropylene. The nature of the fibres is that they break up really quickly, but they don’t disappear,” Bondaroff explains, “they break up into microplastic.”
As it turns out, a mask could release as many as 173,000 microfibers each day if it is exposed to UV light and vigorous stirring, according to a study at the University of Milano Bicocca in Italy.
“[Microfibers] are so small they can get into the lowest levels of our food webs. Like phytoplankton and krill that eventually work their way through the entire food webs,” Bondaroff adds.
Cheung has been a fisherman for more than 20 years, his skin looks tanned and sunburnt. In fact, he is running a family business that was established about a century ago and has been maintained through four generations.
“My elderly family members sometimes reminisce about the old Tai O. There was no waste, the water was actually clean,” said Cheung. At that time, he claims, their nets caught caught nothing but fish.
Tai O fishing village, located on the western side of Lantau Island, is known as the ‘Venice of Hong Kong’ thanks to its famous stilt houses that were built right over the waterway. During the Chinese Civil War, Tai O became an entry point for illegal immigrants fleeing mainland China, and some of them had stayed on the island. Surrounded by rivers, inhabitants naturally picked up the fishing lifestyle.
Things have definitely changed, however. Unlike 100 years ago, many have moved on from fishing as a source of income. Cheung is one of the few fishermen left who still heads out at 4:00am every day and travels on his tiny boat from Tai O, through the Lantau Channel, to Tung Wan, casting his net as the sun slowly rises on the horizon.
“When I examine my catch and see facemasks, I honestly treat them like other plastic waste. I always toss them back into the ocean. I mean, what else can I do?” Cheung says. He feels like his job, after all, is only to catch fish and make a living.
A plastic pollution crisis
Marine plastic pollution has been a longstanding issue, even before the proliferation of surgical face masks around the globe. “While we say there are 5,000 tons of plastic facemasks entering the ocean, eight million tons of plastic actually enter our ocean every year,” said Bondaroff. “So really, face masks are just the tip of the iceberg. They are part of a bigger problem. We must look into our future plastic consumption, and it’s not just masks.”
In OceansAsia’s 2020 report, the team gave several recommendations to the government, including implementing policies designed to encourage the use of reusable masks, such as introducing guidelines on the proper manufacturing and use of reusable masks, as well as discouraging littering by increasing fines.
None of these recommendations have been adopted so far.
“Face masks are just the tip of the iceberg. They are part of a bigger problem.”
In Hong Kong, face masks from both hospitals and highly contagious environments that handle suspected and confirmed Covid-19 cases are disposed of as clinical waste. They are then delivered to the Chemical Waste Treatment Centre for incineration at 1,000 degrees Celsius.
As for the properly disposed face masks thrown into the rubbish bins by the general public, those are sent to the landfills along with other domestic waste.
Pushback against the government’s reusable masks
Back in May 2020, the government provided every citizen with a free reusable mask – a move that was met with a lukewarm reception by the public. The appearance of the cloth mask, CuMask+, has constantly been compared to a pair of knickers because of its thick, white material.
On top of that, the majority of people in Hong Kong did not use the masks, as people’s distrust in the government deepened following the 2019 pro-democracy protests. Saying no to a government-backed product was seen to be a part of the political movement.
Much to the bafflement of many, several months later Hong Kong’s chief executive Carrie Lam had herself ditched the CuMask+ without any explanations.
Using masks effectively benefits the environment
Companies that want to innovate on reusable or environmentally friendly masks face a range of difficulties as well. “You need to have regulations to make sure that products reaching the market are safe,” said Bondaroff. “But a lot of the time these companies found that the requirements were changing so quickly, they couldn’t make products at a scale that brought them to the market.”
Research has shown that disposable surgical masks are able to filter out virus particles better than reusable cloth masks. However, wearing a surgical mask everywhere is not necessary, Bondaroff suggested. When you are in a space for just a brief moment without any close contact with anyone, a reusable cloth mask usually suffices.
Since the outbreak of the pandemic, both Stokes and Bondaroff have only used plastic masks twice when they had to visit the hospital. Also, the importance of wearing well-fitting masks the right way is often neglected. A cloth mask that fits well and worn correctly can be just as effective (if not more) as a plastic mask that’s used improperly.
Bondaroff, in fact, sews his own masks. More and more jurisdictions, such as Australia and numerous states in the US, have been giving out guidelines to the public on how to make their own masks using materials that can ensure a certain level of protectiveness.
Australia’s health department recommended the public to make sustainable three-layered masks using water-resistant fabrics like polyester and polypropylene found in, for instance, exercise clothing as the outer layer; fabric blends in the middle; and water-absorbing materials for the innermost layer.
“The government needs to do something. If the reusable masks that they came up with are not well-received, maybe get the design students to help out. Create a reusable mask that is by the people, and for the people,” said Stokes.
Cheung is back from his fishing trip, he sets up his roadside stall in Tai O, right outside a bubble tea shop Tai Ohhh. His threadfins, sea bass and mullets lie dead in a large plastic container and a tin bowl, while his tiger prawns and shrimp move slowly in several water-filled white boxes.
By 5pm, most of his catches of the day are sold. All that’s left is the murky water in the containers. “The fish I caught are healthy and fresh. And no, I am sure they have not consumed any plastics.”
Image by Brian Yurasits