Looks like Masks are Here to Stay: Here’s How to be Sustainable About It
Before the pandemic, most of us didn’t even own a mask – let alone wear one. Every single day. But in the face of Covid 19, face masks became part of the list of important items we recite to ourselves before we leave the house, so we don’t forget them: keys, wallet, mask.
We wear them indoors and outside in crowded places – for better or worse, they are now part of our – dare we say it – new normal. But, with the increased use of masks came increased mask production, which has led to more pollution.
The Environmental Challenges of Face Masks
The pandemic is estimated to generate up to 7200 tons of medical waste every day, a large portion of which are single-use (even though reusable cloth masks are an eco-friendlier option, disposable masks remain the most acceptable – KN95/FFP2 masks to be exact), and when single-use masks are not disposed of properly, they end up getting buried, or polluting the ocean (Oceans Asia estimates that more than 1.5 billion face masks found their way into our oceans in 2020, resulting in an additional 4680 to 6240 metric tons of marine plastic pollution).
This is a huge environmental issue not only because single-use face masks are made of plastic materials that don’t break down, but because they can entangle or choke wildlife, and even enter our food chain (which is dangerous for us because single-use masks can contain chemical pollutants as well as plastic fibers and particles).
3 Ways to Be more Sustainable with our Face Masks
1. Dispose of Your Mask Properly
This might sound basic but the best way to mitigate the impacts of (and help prevent) face mask pollution is disposing of them properly. Throw your used masks in the bin, in a bin bag, and make sure you close the lid properly to prevent the contents from falling out or blowing away.
Tip: Minimize the chance of animals getting entangled by cutting the ear loop straps of your single-use masks before you throw them away.
2. Choose Biodegradable Masks if You Can
Face masks may not look like they contain plastic, but they do (they usually consist of metal for the nose piece, cotton and elastic for the ear loops, and polypropylene for the part that covers your nose and mouth).
With biodegradable masks (made of corn starch, rice, wood fibers, etc.), we can limit the quantity of plastic waste and control our individual carbon footprint.
As we mentioned above, single-use face masks are made from different materials (metal, cotton, elastic, plastic) that can’t be easily separated and recycled. TerraCycle offers a simple solution: a PPE recycling program.
How it works: store your used masks in a box (you can buy these boxes here). Then, when the box is full, simply send it back to TerraCycle, who will sort the materials and send them on to be recycled (into a variety of new products, including outdoor furniture, plastic shipping pallets, etc.).
Of course, protecting people from Covid-19 is the top priority, but we also need to start minimizing that protection’s impact on the environment.