Mask-wearing has proven to be most effective in fighting the COVID-19 virus. While single-use disposable masks are more convenient for daily use, these masks serve as a major potential environmental risk. Disposable masks are unable to be recycled, and 75% of these masks end up in landfills and the world’s oceans.
Disposable masks are made of thin layers of plastic, which eventually begin to break down, turning into microplastics. These microplastics have the potential to enter many species’ food chains, including humans. Additionally, humans are constantly breathing in these microplastics while wearing a disposable mask, allowing the plastics to enter the body.
Our world’s oceans are already a hotspot for pollution and other human waste, and disposable masks are adding to that burden. While this pollution is most likely accidental, carelessness is also a major factor. Improperly disposed masks fall into water from the land, and the discarded masks can be blown by winds to landfills. Sea animals such as dolphins and porpoises have already begun to mistaken disposable masks for food; “We’re constantly getting them washing up dead, and we’re just waiting for a necropsy when we find the mask inside,” said Gary Stokes, co-founder of Oceans Asia, an organization dedicated to educating people on how to protect our world’s oceans. Other animals are being found entangled in the ear loops of a mask. In an interview with CNN, Laurent Lombard, founder of Operation Mer Propre (Operation Clean Sea) predicted that “soon there may be more masks than jellyfish” Cities such as Hong Kong have already seen massive amounts of masks washing up on the shorelines.
Single-use masks that are not properly disposed of may also pose a risk to other animals and humans. A number of studies show that bacteria and chemicals can live on the surface of a single-use mask for up to seven days, potentially spreading unwanted diseases, including COVID-19, to those who come in contact with it.
The most effective way of protecting the planet from further destruction via disposable masks is to wear a reusable cloth mask. Beyond being more environmentally friendly, multi-layer cloth face masks are recommended over disposable masks by the CDC. A study from Wake Forest shows that cloth masks were able to block 79% of particles containing COVID-19, compared to 62-65% filtration of surgical masks. Even though disposable masks may be more convenient for daily use, consider the potential environmental effects of using a single-use mask.
Feature image courtesy of Cross the Pacific Ltd.