COVID-19 has been sweeping the globe for almost a year and a half now, and face masks have become a requirement in the fight to contain this unprecedented epidemic. However, a rise in the usage of disposable face masks has unintended consequences for the environment.
What are disposable masks?
Disposable masks are often constructed in many layers of polypropylene and are either flat, pleated, or shaped to the face. They usually have a nose wire integrated with it and simple elastic bands to loop over the ears or head.
Are disposable face masks biodegradable?
No, they are not biodegradable. These face masks are made from nanofiber plastic materials, which will take up to 450 years to degrade. These plastics have a negative impact on the life cycles of marine animals and on the ecosystem at large.
Are disposable masks recyclable?
They are currently not recyclable. Disposable face masks are considered “unrecyclable” because they may be contaminated and so pose a risk of virus transmission and infection if they reach the recycling system.
How to wear disposable face masks?
Here’s how you can wear a disposable face mask:
- Before handling the mask, wash your hands with soap and water or use a hand sanitiser.
- Figure out which side of the mask is in front. The coloured side of the mask should be facing away from you, while the white side should be touching your face.
- Hold the mask in your hands by the ear loops. Make a loop around each of your ears.
- Mould or squeeze the hard edge to your nose’s contour.
- Pull the mask over your mouth and chin.
How to correctly dispose of face masks?
If people come into contact with improperly disposed masks, especially ones that are dirty, it might pose a health risk.
So, it’s important to dispose of your face mask correctly.
To start with, wash your hands before taking off your mask as you don’t want to transfer any germs that are on your hands to your face.
Then, remove and fold your mask in half inwards so that no droplets from the mouth or nose are exposed. Fold the mask in half again, then another half, and so on, until it resembles a roll.
Finally, use the mask’s ear loop to keep it from unravelling. For extra protection, wrap it with a piece of tissue before discarding it in a trash can.
These disposable face masks usually come in a pack of 50 pieces. The average price for one pack is around $3 to $4 or RM20 to RM25. Thus, each piece will cost about $0.06 to $0.08 or RM0.40 to RM0.50.
Environmental impact of face masks
According to recent statistics, we use 129 billion face masks every month on the planet or 3 million per minute.
With more instances of masks being discarded improperly, it’s more important than ever to detect this possible environmental hazard and prevent it from becoming the next plastic disaster.
Face masks, gloves, and wipes are produced from a variety of plastic fibres, mostly polypropylene, which will linger in the environment for ages. Rather than decompose, they fragment into smaller and smaller microplastics and nanoplastics. A single face mask can discharge up to 173,000 microfibers into the oceans every day.
Face masks that are littered will be blown into rivers and streams and eventually end up in oceans. Scientists have discovered them on beaches in South America, river outflows in Jakarta Bay, Bangladesh, Kenya’s coast, and Hong Kong’s uninhabited Soko Islands.
Hazardous to people and animals
Under specific conditions, the coronavirus can live up to seven days on a disposable mask. Thus, abandoned masks may expose trash collectors, litter pickers, or members of the public who come across them to coronavirus.
Additionally, toxic compounds such as phthalate, organotin, and others are used as additives in microplastics. Those hazardous compounds can be released in the open environment through the breakdown of plastic polymers.
As a result, wildlife and plants will suffer.
For example, marine creatures that accidentally consume plastic are at risk of getting poisoned. This can kill them instantly, but it’s more likely to weaken them and make them vulnerable to other dangers.
Moreover, these plastics can wind up in foods intended for human consumption when aquatic life, such as fish, consume them. This contaminates the human food chain and poses a danger to our health. The threat to global food safety can also result in food scarcity.
Alternatives to disposable masks
Here’s how we can all play our part in preserving the environment:
Opt for reusable masks
The more environmentally friendly option is to use a reusable mask. Since these masks are made out of cloth, they can be used multiple times after a good wash.
We at ProXMask have a selection of reusable face masks for you to choose from. Our masks are made with antiviral, anti-microbial and water repellent coating to resist pathogen penetration.
You can also customise your reusable face mask with us, to make it more personalised for you to wear.
Allocate separate trash cans
Local officials can set up a mask-only garbage bin that will be collected separately. This can ensure that all masks are disposed of correctly, while also limiting transmissions through mask disposals.
Set standardised guidelines
The government can place and consider a standardisation as to how people dispose of their masks. With this set of guidelines and strict implementation of waste management, we can collectively control how much mask waste is impacting the environment.
Develop biodegradable masks
Scientists can create face masks that are both functional and safe for the environment. With biodegradable masks, the plastic waste will be reduced significantly and indirectly will save the lives of marine animals in the process.
People are becoming increasingly conscious about the need to lessen our dependence on plastic items all around the world. In hopes of a safer future on the planet, it is important to educate and promote awareness. Starting today, we should dispose of masks correctly, or better yet, switch to washable face masks.
The article is a part of our comprehensive series on “Face mask: Preventing the spread of Covid-19”