Studies show that wearing a mask is an easy way to blunt the spread of respiratory illnesses like COVID-19. In short, masks work, and yet, they also present a unique problem – pollution.
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On my morning walk, I counted five disposable and two cloth masks on the ground. That’s a lot for a three-mile hike. It got worse. In the parking lot of a local supermarket, I spied five more disposable masks and a pair of crumpled plastic gloves left in a shopping cart.
To be honest, I don’t want to pick up someone else’s Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). It’s gross.
On social media, others complain about the number of discarded masks and gloves that they spot on the street. One of my neighbors said, “They seem to be today’s equivalent of cigarette butts.”
A nearby town warned residents on its Facebook page, “Clean and properly dispose of your used gloves and wipes. If you don’t, you can be charged and fined up to $500.”
“The amount of litter associated with masks, gloves, and wipes has increased,” Anna Dunbar, Waco (Texas) Recycling Services Program Coordinator, says. “No one should be leaving used plastic gloves or masks on the ground in parking lots or tossing them into the bushes.”
Wear a mask but don’t litter
I’m thrilled when I see people in stores, restaurants, and outside socializing with friends wearing their masks. A friend in South Korea told me everyone there has been wearing masks for a number of years, way before COVID. “It’s a matter of courtesy to keep colds and the flu from being transmitted to others,” she says.
Not disposing of masks, gloves, and other PPE on the ground is littering. It’s also the newest form of pollution. “Masks and gloves thrown on the ground, left in shopping carts, or tossed on top of overflowing trashcans are picked up by the breeze, washed into storm drains by the rain, and wind up in rivers, lakes, estuaries, and eventually the ocean,” Kaitlin Gannon, education coordinator, at the Jacques Cousteau National Estuarine Research Reserve, administered through Rutgers University, says.
The majority of single use disposable masks contain a variety of plastics, including polypropylene, polyurethane, polyacrylonitrile, polystyrene, polycarbonate, polyethylene, and polyester. Sales of disposable masks reached $166 billion in 2020, up from $800 million in 2019, according to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD).
The World Health Organization estimates we wore approximately 89 million medical masks each month of 2020 to protect ourselves from COVID-19.
Disposable masks consist of three layers: an inner layer of soft fibers, a middle layer, and an outer layer. The middle layer is the filter; it’s made of melted polymers, which are plastics. The outer layer is nonwoven fibers that are water-resistant; those are usually blue in color.
Cut the elastic straps of disposable masks
The elastic strings attached to the masks and placed behind your ears are a problem for birds and sea creatures, too. It’s not uncommon to see elastic around their necks. If you use a disposable mask, please cut the elastic straps before you place it in the trash to protect the animals.
Plastic isn’t a new problem
“Plastic pollution was already one of the greatest threats to our planet before the coronavirus outbreak,” Pamela Coke-Hamilton, UNCTAD’s director of international trade, says. “The sudden boom in the daily use of certain products to keep people safe and stop the disease is making things much worse.”
She went on to say it’s not just an environmental problem; it’s an economic one, especially affecting tourism and fisheries. The UN Environment Programme estimates the cost at around $40 billion in one year.
Possible solutions to the face mask pollution problem
A report titled Breaking the Plastic Wave: A Comprehensive Assessment of Pathways Towards Stopping Ocean Plastic Pollution published by The Pew Charitable Trusts and Systemiq, a sustainability think tank, found that if no action is taken, the amount of plastics dumped into our oceans will triple by 2040, from 11 to 29 million tonnes per year.
The news is not all dire. Replacing inadequate regulations, changing business models, introducing incentives that reduces plastic production, and expanding waste collection can eliminate approximately 80 percent of plastic pollution.
“The way countries have been using trade policy to fight plastic pollution has mostly been uncoordinated,” Coke-Hamilton says. “It limits the effectiveness of their efforts. There are limits to what any country can achieve on its own.”
She went on to explain that the UNCTAD’s analysis points out “in order for trade policies to be truly effective, global rules are needed and the effort must be a coordinated one.”
Replacing plastics with non-toxic, biodegradable, and recyclable alternatives is one solution. Instead of manufacturing disposable masks with plastic, use natural fibers, such as rice husk, jute, or another sustainable fiber. Leigh wrote an excellent piece for this site highlighting the best organic and reusable cloth face masks.
The pandemic isn’t going away overnight. It’s a smart idea to buy at least five or six reusable cloth masks. One study shows that reusable cloth masks work almost as well as disposable masks. Another study found reusable cloth masks are a great option for the environment because you can wash them and wear them multiple times.
We still need to use disposable masks at hospitals and clinics
Reusable cloth masks make sense when you’re out and about. Hospitals and clinics use disposable masks because of patient and staff safety. Using disposable masks eliminates the risk of patient-to-patient contamination.
While hospitals and clinics discard disposable face masks, we don’t have to. We can use them a few times as long as they are dry and create an airtight seal around your nose and mouth. Discard them when they become wet or soiled.
A better option is to invest in a handful of cloth masks that you can launder and wear repeatedly. Consider where you’ll wear your cloth mask. Most cloth masks work well in low risk settings. If you’re attending a sporting event or a concert in an enclosed crowded arena, you may want to wear a mask with a filter.
Proper disposal of face masks
Single use masks are not recyclable. The best way to dispose of your mask is in the trash with the rest of your solid waste. Tie the bag tightly when it’s full so the contents remain contained.
“There’s no single solution to ocean plastic pollution,” Tom Dillion, senior vice president of the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Environment, says. “Through rapid and concerted action we can break the plastic wave by investing in a future of reduced waste, better health outcomes, greater job creation, and a cleaner and more resilient environment for people and nature.”