For over a year, face mask-wearing has been a sign of cautiousness and care for one another. A single item has been able to help save lives and allow us to safely engage in human interaction whether it be at the local store or saying hello to our grandparents. Needless to say, face masks are an incredibly important piece of our day to day and we no longer leave the house without one.
At one point in the pandemic, the CDC announced that double masking was encouraged and we learned that single-use surgical masks are significantly more protective than reusable cloth masks (see our recent blog post about it here). They have become our safeguard. But like humans, no mask is perfect. While they are necessary, there is a dark downside to using them, which calls to the problem of pollution.
What do we know about masks?
Yes, the rumors are true. Masks are made of plastic... but can they be recycled?
The answer is no.
Masks are made of a mixed bag of materials disguised as plastic. To elaborate, the mask has metal in the nose area to securely fit your face, cotton strings that loop around your ears, and lastly, melt-blown polypropylene that makes up the piece protecting your nose & mouth. When it comes to recycling, a rule of thumb is to mix “like with like.” For example, the same types of paper will be recycled together and the same goes for plastic, etc. Since masks cannot be truly reduced to a pure stream of a single material, these products cannot be recycled and therefore, find their way in either landfills or our ecosystem.
If they are recycled (which often occurs), masks or even gloves can clog the machinery that separates the different types of materials. Be aware when throwing away your single-use masks that it does not end up in the blue bin!
The environmental impact
Single-use plastics have been the bane of our existence for quite some time. However, since the pandemic, the amount of single-use plastics and the negative impact they have on our environment have increased significantly and rapidly.
According to a 2020 study published in the Environmental Science and Technology Journal, 30% more trash was collected in 2020 compared to 2019. The difference is due to the increased use of personal protective equipment (PPE). To give some perspective, a globally estimated 129 billion face masks and 65 billion gloves are used and thrown out every month.
Of course, the general public would like to put face masks away for good, however, they continue to keep us safe as we aim for herd immunity. Face masks may even be around for decades to come as the pandemic has proven the benefits when combating the spread of illnesses. Now we are left to grapple with the issue of disposing of face masks in a way that does not negatively impact our environment.
Gary Stokes, the Director of Operations at OceansAsia, provided some perspective on the effect face masks have on our oceans. He noted that 1.56 billion masks have ended up in our oceans during 2020. This level of pollution severely affects our wildlife and the entire ecosystem in significant ways.
According to their research, larger sea animals, like the sea turtle, are at risk of mistaking face masks or other PPE items floating in the water as prey, such as a jellyfish. Sadly, when larger sea animals ingest our litter, it can clog their digestive system and cause death by starvation. Smaller sea animals run the risk of getting tangled in face masks. This directly impacts those poor animals, but in fact, this issue disrupts the entire food chain.
As if that isn’t difficult enough to digest, face mask pollution can have a lasting impact on our environment... up to 450 years. Here’s why:
According to a study in Environmental Advances, a single face mask can release at least 173,000 microplastics per day into the seas which can stick around for up to 450 years before it decomposes entirely. Meaning, when we throw away our face mask in an open trash can, and the wind blows it to the beach, that single toss will impact our environment for centuries past our own lifetime.
Microplastics are particularly dangerous to our ecosystem because when released into water, fish and other sea animals ingest them, which can later make their way onto a human’s dinner plate. Additionally, they flow right through the water filters, into our drinking water. The direct impact face mask pollution has on human life is significant and efforts should be directed towards mitigating this horrible issue.
How to mitigate
How many times has it happened to you where you’re walking along the street and see a face mask littered, dirt-covered, and no trash can in sight? Can we actually expect you to pick it up? The fear of potentially coming in contact with a Covid-19 infected mask is too great, and the risk of contracting the virus from that mask is legitimate. So, if the general public cannot help by picking up littered masks, what can we do?
As I mentioned before, simply tossing your single-use face mask into an open trash can in the grocery store parking lot will NOT suffice. It is critical that you be aware of the type of trash bin you are disposing your items into, and be sure that the trash has a lid to cover from the wind blowing away items into our ecosystem.
The easiest way to mitigate this issue is to be a morally driven member of society and to not litter. Secondly, it is critical that we dispose of PPE properly in a garbage can with a closed lid. Another positive solution could be to collect your PPE in a tightly zipped bag or a bag that gets tied before placing it in the trash can.
Justine Ammendolia, a marine researcher based in Toronto and a National Geographic Society grantee began collecting data on places where mask litter was abundant. She concluded that grocery stores and hospitals were the two most prevalent hot spots. Both our state and local governments need to focus efforts and take action in these certain hot spots, whether it be providing lid-covered trash cans or fining those individuals littering.
Reusable face masks are another great option if you are vaccinated or able to obtain that level of protection.
These simple changes won’t completely fix the large-scale issue we’re dealing with; however, it is a starting point for humans to become more aware and think each time they go to dispose of their face masks. We all have a role to play when disposing of single-use plastics properly, face masks, and beyond. So please do your part and let’s reduce the amount of pollution together.