How are all these disposable face masks impacting the environment?

disposable masks environment
Photo via Mike Licht/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
  • This story is regularly updated for relevance. Last updated: June 10, 2021

During the pandemic, masks have been scientifically proven to lessen the chances of contracting and spreading the coronavirus. It has also been mandated by President Biden, officially requiring people entering buildings and lands controlled by the federal government to mask up. On the other hand, disposable masks have also emerged as a potential problem for the environment, even if the CDC no longer recommends vaccinated people wear them in most places.

Pollution due to the coronavirus has reportedly reached global heights, with multiple countries experiencing surges in trash left in public places. In April 2020, many U.S. cities reportedly observed a 20% spike in residential waste and recyclable volumes, stressing many solid waste collection systems and causing communities to temporarily suspend curbside recycling programs until all trash was collected and dealt with properly. 

How the plastic in masks affects the environment

A big percentage of the garbage, according to environmental researchers, is plastic. It’s the ingredient most common in everyday items currently being overused such as grocery bags, packaged foods, and takeout meals. But it’s also found in PPE that is essential during the pandemic, like hospital gowns, surgical gloves, face shields, and face masks.

According to a recent study in Environmental Science & Technology, a whopping monthly estimate of 129 billion face masks are used worldwide. That’s nearly 3 million masks per minute. According to reports, about 65 billion gloves are used per month.

Although masks, disposable or otherwise, are regarded as the first line of defense of humans against the deadly virus, they are proving to be hazardous to the planet’s wildlife and the environment in which they live. 

In Malaysia, macaques have reportedly been spotted chewing straps off discarded masks—a choking hazard for smaller animals. In Britain, a gull was reportedly rescued by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals after it was found entangled in the straps of a disposable mask for up to a week, proven by the animal’s swollen joints and the tightness of the elastic around its legs. 

In June, a dead puffin was found entangled in a mask in Ireland.

“I think it’s ironic that the materials that protect us are so harmful to the animals around us,” Auke-Florian Hiemstra, a biologist at the Naturalis Biodiversity Center in Leiden, Netherlands, told CNN.

In the past year, face masks have also made their way into the water, with more than 1.5 billion masks potentially contaminating the ocean and worsening the state of already contaminated seas and rivers, according to OceanAsia, an environmental group based in Hong Kong.

“Single-use face masks are made from a variety of meltblown plastics and are difficult to recycle due to both composition and risk of contamination and infection. These masks enter our oceans when they are littered or otherwise improperly discarded, when waste management systems are inadequate or non-existent, or when these systems become overwhelmed due to increased volumes of waste,” the OceanAsia report stated. Additionally, the report also claimed that face masks in the marine environment serve as a source of microplastic and could take around 450 years to decompose fully.

Medical masks are generally for single use only and are not recyclable—WHO’s COVID-19 health guideline recommends that if you happen to use one, discard it into a trash bin with a lid and not into a recycling bin (doing the latter reportedly makes recycling more difficult and expensive). 

Even in an ideal setting where people dispose of single-use masks appropriately and in the right manner, an estimated 75% of used masks, including other pandemic-related waste, will either end up in a landfill or floating in the seas, according to the United Nations

If the trend of face mask production continues—according to the U.N. trade body, the estimated global sales for 2020 was around $166 billion, a giant leap from around $800 million in 2019—the number of masks in the ocean may exceed the number of jellyfish in the Mediterranean Sea. That’s according to Laurent Lombard, a diver and the founder of the nonprofit Opération Mer Propre (Operation Clean Sea), in a CNN interview.

And if people continue to wear masks on a seasonal basis, that pollution could get even worse.

How these kinds of masks can be repurposed

To surmount the growing waste problem the world’s environment is experiencing during the pandemic, research is being made on how to repurpose used disposable masks. According to a new study by the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT), it’s possible to recycle 3 million masks for every .62 miles (1 kilometer) of a two-lane road produced. That could reportedly save up to 93 tons of waste.

Professor Jie Li, one of the authors of the study, explained how face masks can be used to build roads: After being safely collected, disinfected, and shredded into fibers or strips, they are ready to be blended with recycled concrete aggregate (RCA) for road-making materials.

“Shredded face masks play a reinforcing role in binding the rubble particles together. The introduction of randomly distributed shredded face masks enhanced the stretching resistance between aggregates. Consequently, the ductility, flexibility and strength of the rubble mixed with the mask fibers increased,” Professor Li told AZO Cleantech.

This may be a promising long-term solution that can curb the environmental repercussions of excessive use of disposable masks, but for now it is still very much a pipe dream. The research is still currently in its early stages—the team is looking to partner with local governments or industries interested in collecting masks and building a road prototype.

The quickest and easiest way to help lessen the burden on the environment is to switch from disposable masks to reusable cloth masks and to wear them whenever possible. The cost of one may be a bit pricier now when you compare it to disposable masks, but as demand for the former increases, the cost of producing this type of mask will likely become more affordable over time.

Researchers have found that N95 masks are still in the lead for the most effective type of mask against COVID-19. However, since N95 and other respiratory-style masks are generally in short supply, the CDC recommends reserving these masks for healthcare professionals, who are often in situations where odds of virus transmission are significantly higher. Cloth masks are a suitable alternative to disposable surgical masks, provided that they are made with tightly woven fabrics (such as cotton and cotton blends), are breathable, and are made of two or three fabric layers.

Jill Crittenden, a research scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told Nylon that it may be a good idea to look into buying a “high filtration mask”—essentially a better fitting surgical mask that is meant for single use, but can be used multiple times without sacrificing its filtration capabilities as long as it is not damaged or dirty. She also recommended having several masks in rotation, preferably stored individually in a paper bag for seven days after use to kill off potential contaminants.

If using a disposable mask is truly unavoidable, environmentalists recommend snipping off the ear loops before throwing the mask into a covered trash can (the same way you would to the plastic rings that come with a six-pack of soda or beer), to avoid entrapping marine animals in case the mask finds its way into the sea. 

Read more on coronavirus face coverings:

Sources: WhiteHouse.gov, Society for Science, Solid Waste Association of North America, Environmental Science & Technology Journal, Phys.org, Business Today India, World Heath Organization, Nylon, United Nations, CNN, Science of the Total Environment Journal, AZoCleantech, CDC [1, 2]

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