Environmental Impacts of Face Masks and How You Can Help
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Face masks have been our primary protection against the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
However, are you aware of all the harrowing environmental impacts of face masks?
You’ve probably seen this picture of a man “fishing” all kinds of improperly discarded face masks from the ocean – but it doesn’t end there.
Face masks are becoming a new source of marine litter and the source of tons of waste dumped in landfills.
But we can’t just stop using face masks, or at least not yet.
So what can we do to help?
Well, some companies and individuals around the world have come up with innovative ideas on how to reduce the environmental impacts of face masks.
Some of which you can do from home, which we will discuss in a moment.
First, we will take a closer look at how face masks, while keeping us safe from a deadly virus, are slowly killing our planet.
What are the Negative Environmental Impacts of Face Masks?
1. Disposable face masks create tons of waste
In a study released by the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), an estimated 16,659.48 tons of face masks are discarded in Asia alone – every single day!
That is an estimated 499,784.4 tons per month (16,659.48 x 30) or around 6 million tons of waste per year!
In the UK, 53 million COVID-19 face masks are sent to landfills every day.
The numbers are truly staggering, but take note that these statistics are for Asian countries and the UK only.
In the “new normal” state we are currently living in, everyone needs to wear a face mask when going outside for work, picking up supplies, etc.
So in your estimate, how many face masks are used and discarded every day worldwide?
How many more discarded disposable face masks will be there in a year and the coming years?
On that note, have you heard of reusable and eco-friendly face masks?
2. Most COVID-19 face masks are non-biodegradable
Besides the tons of waste it creates, have you asked yourself:
“How long does it take for the face mask I throw to decompose?”
To answer this question, we need to know what are the COVID-19 face masks made of.
According to the guideline given by the World Health Organization, a face mask against COVID-19 must be made with three layers of fabric:
- An inner layer of absorbent material, such as cotton.
- A middle layer of non-woven, non-absorbent material, such as polypropylene.
- An outer layer of a non-absorbent material, such as polyester or polyester blend.
Polypropylene is a thermoplastic polymer that is non-biodegradable. Meanwhile, synthetic fabrics like polyesters are also not biodegradable.
This means the typical surgical face masks we use every day during this pandemic are thought to take up to 450 years to fully decompose in landfills.
Now, you might be thinking:
“Can’t we just burn all the used face masks?”
That should lessen the amount of non-biodegradable waste in landfills, right?
Unfortunately, burning face masks using incinerators is harmful for the environment as well.
Incinerators generate air pollution and produce tons of carbon and greenhouse gases.
Moreover, burning trash can releases substances like dioxin, lead, and mercury into the air, which can harm people in nearby communities.
3. Improperly discarded face masks are harming (and will harm) ecosystems and wild animals
It’s disheartening that some people are littering their used face masks everywhere.
Discarded face masks are found in streets, streams, rivers, and oceans.
Animals are getting entangled in somebody’s used face mask.
Moreover, turtles, whales, and other marine animals might also confuse face masks floating in the ocean as jellyfish.
If a marine animal eats a face mask, the animal can become malnourished as the face mask will fill up its stomach but provide no nutrients.
Face masks are also made with non-organic and non-biodegradable materials so they can pollute the soil and the ocean.
But it gets worse.
4. Face masks can become potential sources of microplastic fibers
Improperly discarded disposable or single-use face masks can be a source of microplastic fibers.
Although they decompose very slowly, face masks can degrade and break down into smaller particles under 5mm, known as microplastics.
These minute plastic particles are often made of polymers, and a single face mask can produce millions of microplastic particles.
When they reach the ocean, microplastics can have adverse consequences as aquatic and marine organisms cane at them.
And though fishes and other marine organisms don’t necessarily die from microplastics’ consumption, seafood constitutes a significant part of human sustenance.
So, it is possible that we unknowingly consume plastic particles from the fish and other seafood our family and we eat.
And did you know that marine scientists recently discovered toxic bacteria on microplastics?
A team of marine scientists discovered toxic bacteria living on the surfaces of microplastics collected from Singapore’s coastal areas.
The said bacteria are capable of causing coral bleaching and triggering wound infections in humans.
Need we say more environmental impacts of face masks?
5. Pollution increase due to the rise in face mask manufacturing
In an article by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), sales from face masks are estimated to shoot up to $166 billion in 2020 from $800 million in 2019!
On the other side of the coin, this means a massive increase in carbon emissions from manufacturing face masks can also be expected.
With a skyrocket in demand, face mask manufacturing companies will be working overtime to accommodate the public’s needs.
But with all these negative environmental impacts of face masks, isn’t there something we can do?
Can you Recycle Face Masks?
Disposable face masks are not recyclable, nor are they advised to be recycled.
Used face masks are considered to be risky medical wastes due to possible contact with individuals infected with COVID-19.
Hence, recycling used face masks can expose workers to the virus, and they might contract the sickness in the process.
However, some new developments might give way to recycling disposable face masks safely in the future.
Over the past months, companies and individuals worldwide shared their exciting ideas on recycling face masks.
Some of which will require you to send your used face masks to them, while others are simple enough that you can do at home.
Recycling Disposable Face Masks Ideas
1. Make seedling bags and plant pots using used face masks
This method of recycling face masks is very easy as you can do it at home with minimum resources.
It is also perfect for green thumbs.
All you need are:
- Thread and Needle
- Used face masks
Check the video below to see the actual process in action.
A word of caution: Only recycle your own face mask or that to your immediate family with whom you live.
Avoid collecting used face masks from other people as it might expose you to the COVID-19 virus.
2. Face mask chair idea by a Korean Student
A Korean student majoring in furniture design found a way to create chairs using discarded disposable face masks.
Now, this method of recycling face masks is far from perfect and comes with various issues.
For instance, how strong is the chair, and is it worth consuming energy to make discarded face masks into a chair?
Secondly, how to disinfect the used face masks so they can be safely repurposed into chairs?
Nevertheless, it gives the government and other well-funded organizations an idea of recycling discarded face masks.
With proper funding and a tailored safety strategy, reusing discarded face masks into a new useful product using heat is possible.
3. Face mask eco-bricks
Dr.Binish Desai, known as the Recycle Man of India, has found a way to create eco-bricks using discarded face masks.
His company, Eco Eclectic Group, places eco bins in hospitals and other public places to collect used face masks.
They are also open to collaborations with people from other countries who want to help reduce face masks’ environmental impacts.
The eco bins are sealed, and when they are full, they will be transported into the company’s factory, where they will be emptied into a disinfectant chamber.
The disinfected face masks will then be shredded and mixed into a binder to create the Eco Bricks, which can be used as eco-friendly construction materials.
4. Eco-friendly road-making materials from recycled face masks
Researchers at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia, developed a new eco-friendly road-making material.
This material is a mix of shredded single-use face masks and processed building rubble (aka recycled concrete aggregate or RCA).
This new material for road making is designed to meet civil engineering safety standards.
The researcher’s study and analysis show the face masks help add stiffness and strength to the final product.
The final product is designed to be used for base layers of roads and pavements.
5. French firm recycles and repurposes used COVID-19 face masks
Plaxtil, a French company, designed an innovative way to recycle used face masks.
In July of 2020, Plaxtil started recycling thousands of used face masks and repurposing them as materials to create new products.
The company initially recycled used clothes, but when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, they started recycling face masks instead.
Plaxtil “quarantines” the collected face masks within 4 days to completely remove bacteria before they are ground into small pieces.
The pieces of face masks are then subjected to UV light to make sure that they are 100% decontaminated.
After the company ensures that the ground pieces of face masks are safe, Plaxtil then mixes them with a binding agent.
They then proceeds to mold them into various products.
6. #ReclaimTheMask recycling initiative
#ReclaimTheMask is a recycling initiative by a UK-based company ReWorked.
The company launched this campaign to collaborate with businesses and establishments that use large amounts of face masks and other PPEs.
How does it work?
Companies and firms can purchase a COVID-waste PPE bin made from 100% recycled plastic board from ReWorked to collect all masks and gloves in their establishments.
ReWorked will then organize regular waste pick-up, where the discarded face masks and PPEs will be safely processed and reused to make more recycled boards, bins, and other repurposed products.
Learn more about ReWorked here.
7. DIY scrunchies from recycled face masks
This is another great way to recycle your own used face masks.
You just need basic sewing skills and you can make plenty of eco-friendly recycled scrunchies for your hair.
But make sure to disinfect your used face masks first before doing this DIY project.
So, what do you think of the different concepts on how to recycle face masks above?
Which one do you think will be most effective in reducing the number of face masks in landfills?
Also, we would like to mention that while doing our research, it’s interesting that we couldn’t find any ideas on recycling or repurposing face masks from the USA.
Well, we could be wrong.
If you know any individuals or organizations from the USA that share some ideas to reduce the environmental impact of face masks, please let us know so we can add them here.
Meanwhile, do you know other ways to recycle a disposable face mask?
Final Thoughts on Reducing the Environmental Impacts of Face Masks
While the environmental impacts of face masks seem dire, in no way are we suggesting that you and your family should stop using face masks.
Multiple cases of COVID-19 infection are still detected in many places all over the world, so we should do our best to stay safe.
Nevertheless, we hope that with this article, we can find ways to work together to ensure that protecting ourselves from COVID-19 doesn’t eventually lead to our planet’s destruction.
And while the above ideas to recycle disposable face masks might not be perfect…
They provide good insights on how average citizens like us can help address the problem.
It’s your turn to help:
Helping reduce the environmental impact of wearing a face mask shouldn’t be hard or complicated.
You can take small steps and create ripples within your community.
Start with these:
- Don’t use a face mask unless you have to.
- Consider using reusable, washable, and eco-friendly face masks. The less amount of face masks are disposed, the better for the planet.
- Practice proper disposal of your used face masks. Don’t litter them as they can pollute the environment and endanger wild life.
- Educate your family about the importance of discarding used face masks properly.
- Share this with other people to inform them how face masks hurt our environment and how they can help.
And the best way to help reduce the impact of face masks?
Stay safe and protect yourself and your family from the virus.
The sooner we can kick COVID-19 to the curb, the sooner we can stop consuming humongous amounts of face masks.