Unmasking the environmental impact of disposable face coverings

By Katy Greco, GLOBUS Correspondent

In a world dominated by the COVID-19 pandemic, face masks have become a conspicuous part of everyday life, and for good reason – they are a vital asset in preventing the spread of the virus. Indeed, one German study found that the implementation of mask-wearing requirements decreased the growth rate of cases by up to 40%, while multiple mathematical models and epidemiological studies show that face masks could save tens of thousands of lives. Clearly, using personal protective equipment (PPE) such as face masks is undeniably important, however the massive rise in demand for single-use PPE has brought with it some serious environmental concerns. According to a recent BBC interview with Ocean Conservancy’s vice president of conservation, Doug Cress, 129 billion facemasks and 65 billion gloves are entering the environment every month. With staggering numbers like these, it’s no surprise that unease is rapidly growing with regards to the environmental impacts of PPE.

Firstly, there’s the issue of disposal. The best-case scenario final destination of a single-use mask is the incinerator. It’s not often that “best-case scenario” and “incinerator” end up in the same sentence; after all, we have recycling, don’t we? Unfortunately not for face masks. Because of the contamination risk and certain material components, these masks are virtually impossible to recycle and the CPI has cautioned that face masks should not be disposed of in recycling. While incineration is environmentally problematic in itself, thermal treatment is the common practice for medical waste and is considered the safest method for destroying potentially dangerous refuse. However, government statistics from 2016 show that only 5.7 million tonnes of waste are incinerated, which pales in comparison to the 52.3 million tonnes that goes to landfill – which is where most single-use masks are likely to end up. Once there, they’ll leach toxic chemicals into the ground and waterways and produce greenhouse gases as they slowly degrade over potentially hundreds of years. From an environmental perspective, this is a major reason why disposable masks should be reserved solely for healthcare workers: medical facilities have access to waste streams that are specially marked for incineration, while the general public have little to no say in where their rubbish ends up. 

But, masks are relatively small … how much of an effect could they really have on landfills? 

Well, UCL’s Plastic Waste Innovation Hub recently released a policy document that helps put the scale of the situation into perspective. They reported that if everyone in the UK used one disposable mask per day for a year it would amount to 124,000 tonnes of waste and almost 1.5 billion kg CO2 equivalent emissions (due to manufacturing, transportation and disposal). 

So single-use masks are generating a lot of waste – but what about masks that don’t reach the landfill or incinerator? Masks have been found littering parks, streets and other public spaces – something which is not only unpleasant for the public, but also dangerous. It has been suggested that littered masks may also help to spread the virus. Single-use masks are largely composed of nanofibers and plastics like polyester, polypropylene, polyurethane, polystyrene, polycarbonate, polyethylene. Not only does this make them unfeasible to recycle, but it also means they could act as a convoy for the virus (one study found that COVID-19 could live on a surgical mask for up to 7 days), and so, in a somewhat Shakespearian twist of irony, the very items made to protect us may actually propagate transmission. 

Littered masks also pose a threat to wildlife. In July, RSPCA Essex South Tweeted a heart-breaking photo of a seagull found tangled up in the elastic straps of disposable blue surgical mask. Unfortunately, this isn’t an isolated incident – there have been numerous reports of animals ingesting, choking on and getting trapped in masks. 

And it doesn’t stop there. Face masks are entering waterways, (primarily by being washed into drains from rain and flooding, but also due to people flushing used masks down the toilet…) and eventually making their way into our oceans. Here, they can wreak havoc on marine ecosystems, harming and killing all types of aquatic life.

Indeed, in late February, just 6 weeks after the first major upsurge in disposable mask consumption, OceansAsia reported masks washing up on the coasts of the Soko Islands. Adding PPE to the list of ocean pollution not only increases the direct risk to marine life but will also add to the microplastic crisis. Surgical masks contain many of the polymers that are known to create microplastic contamination. As these microplastics degrade, the additives they’re treated with begin to leach toxic chemicals which can cause endocrine disruption, tissue damage, reproductive issues and carcinogenesis in marine life. These toxic chemicals then make their way up the food chain through bioaccumulation – the Marine Conservation Society estimates that the average European seafood eater ingests 11,000 particles of plastic a year.

With all of this in mind, the situation looks grim. But what can we do about it? The most obvious solution is to switch to reusable cloth masks. According to UCL’s Plastic Waste Innovation Hub, reusable masks generate 95% less waste and 87% less greenhouse gas emissions. Another perk to using a reusable mask is it’s far cheaper – from a quick look at Amazon.com and some back of the envelope calculations I worked out that the average cost of wearing single-use masks for a year falls in the region of £65.70 to £124.10, whereas a cloth mask will only set you back around £8! Aside from being reusable, more environmentally friendly and cheaper, cloth masks are also recyclable, easy to wash (just throw them in the washing machine) and infinitely more stylish as they’re available in countless prints, colours and designs!

It’s important to note that not everyone can opt for reusable – many healthcare and public service workers are required/advised to use medical grade disposable masks as a health and safety measure. However, numerous hospitals across the globe are seeing shortages of vital PPE, particularly N95 respirators. The Washington Post reported that some nurses have been forced to use the same disposable masks for multiple days (and even weeks), which not only puts medical professionals in danger, but also increases the risk to their already vulnerable patients. This is another reason why it’s paramount that those who can use cloth masks, do. Medical grade disposable PPE should be reserved for healthcare workers, not only because they have access to the proper waste streams, but also because single-use equipment is important in maintaining safe medical environments. 

For those who are using disposable masks, Green Matters offers some useful advice on how to decrease the environmental impact:

  • Make sure to cut the straps (or break them) before throwing them away – this will prevent wildlife getting tangled, should the mask make its way into nature 
  • Dispose of them properly! Face masks should go in a secure bin where they won’t get blown out by the wind or knocked into the environment 
  • Put them in the general waste bin (never the recycling bin!)

As lockdown measures tighten, the need for face masks is increasing. This means we are at a pivotal point in curbing what is turning into a major source of plastic pollution. More than ever we must take precautions to look after each other, ourselves and our planet, and we can do this by making sure we are using PPE safely, responsibly and sustainably.

Header image by Robin Benzrihem, via Unsplash

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