The Harmful Environmental Impacts of Disposable Masks
Updated: Mar 7
Saachi Jain, University of Toronto Schools, Toronto, Ontario, Canada
Every month approximately 129 billion disposable face masks are used and discarded; that is 4.3 billion masks a day (Prata et al., 2020). Masks and other personal protective equipment (PPE) have been an integral part of keeping us safe during the COVID-19 pandemic, but are they doing more harm than good?
The use of PPEs spiked in March 2020 when COVID-19 was officially declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization (Figure 1) (Richter, 2021). Though there are different types of masks available, the three most common masks are reusable cloth masks, N95 masks, and disposable surgical face masks (Figure 2). Reusable cloth masks, however popular, require regular cleaning, and many fail to qualify as medical grade (CDC, 2021). N95 masks, though expensive (ranging from 15-40 USD), are medical grade and CDC recommended for COVID-19 protection (CDC, 2021). Lastly, disposable surgical face masks are widely available, meet the standard specifications for barrier face coverings, and can be purchased in bulk for low prices, making them one of the most popular choices (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2021).
Figure 1. Graph depicting the percentage of United States adults who report wearing masks in public (Richter, 2021).
Figure 2. Three different types of face masks. A cloth mask (left), a disposable surgical face mask (center), and an N95 mask (right) (Matz & Ornberg, 2021).
How prevalent is this issue globally?
As of December 2020, approximately 95% of countries recommend or require wearing masks in public areas (Figure 3); hence, the use of masks globally has drastically increased (Masks4All, 2020). A study conducted from October 2019 to October 2020 found that worldwide, the prevalence of masks around the world increased by a factor of 80 (Phiddian, 2021). In South Asia and South America this led to an increase in PPE debris in beaches, bays, coastal, and aquatic environments (Kumar et al., 2021). Authorities in France have gone as far as saying that there will eventually be more masks than jellyfish in the Mediterranean (Kassam, 2020). Scientists have also recorded significant PPE debris in Bangladesh, the islands of Hong Kong, the U.S., Canada, India, the U.K., and more (Parker, 2021).
Figure 3. A map of countries which require or recommend masks in public areas (Masks4All, 2020)
How are masks affecting the environment?
Disposable surgical masks are primarily composed of plastics, namely polypropylene terephthalate (PET) and polymers like polystyrene, polycarbonate, polyethylene, and polyester (Selvaranjan et al., 2021). Through an energy-intensive process called photodegradation, UV radiation from the sun slowly breaks down the carbon molecules in the plastic (Armentrout, 2021). The hydrophobic nature of PET prevents water from aiding in the decomposition of the molecules; thus, masks take over 450 years to decompose (Mayers, 2021).
As plastics degrade they fragment into microplastics, which can runoff into natural aquatic environments without proper runoff management (Xu & Ren, 2021). This contributes to the growing amount of 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic waste in the ocean (Oliveira & Parker, 2019). These plastics release many harmful chemical substances into the ocean and are detrimental to marine life and ecosystems (Xu & Ren, 2021). Littered masks are also causing many animals to suffer from choking, be strangled by the ear loops, consume toxic chemicals in plastic, and more (Figure 4) (Roberts et al., 2020). In the long term, this can lead to bioaccumulation, where toxins get absorbed at a higher rate than the body can eliminate them. The accumulation of toxins through the food chain can lead to chronic poisoning (Jane, 2014).
In addition, the mass production of face masks significantly contributes to CO2 emissions in the atmosphere. Producing one surgical mask results in 50 grams of CO2, meaning annual mask production is roughly equivalent to one month of all global flight emissions (Liebsch, 2020). This adds to the pressing issue of pollution, a primary reason global issues such as climate change are prevalent today (Selvaranjan et al., 2021).
Figure 4. Elk consuming disposable surgical mask on my trip to Banff, Alberta in July 2021.
What is being done to address the environmental effects of disposable masks?
In Canada, researchers at the University of British Columbia are developing biodegradable masks to limit the ecologically devastating effects of their disposal (APSC Research, 2021). In the U.K., the Royal Cornwall Hospital in Truro is working with the Thermal Compaction Group to melt PPEs used in the hospital and turn them into large blocks of plastic, which can then be recycled (CBC, 2021). Meanwhile, Turkey improved their PPE waste management system by requiring all businesses to have separate waste disposing vessels in all public areas (Ergil, 2021). To reduce the general usage of disposable plastic, countries in South Asia have been incorporating eco-friendly business models to avoid and replace single-use plastics (Kumar et al., 2021). Another promising potential solution to the plastic decomposition problem are plastic-eating bacteria. These microbes consume plastic as a source of energy and are able to survive the toxic chemicals released from its breakdown process (Rader, 2018).
What can you do?
The most eco-friendly option is to simply use a reusable cloth mask. However, ensure that it meets all standard specifications for barrier face coverings. Refraining from littering masks also helps suppress the issue of plastic in wildlife ecosystems. Cutting the ear loops before discarding disposable masks to ensure that small animals do not get caught on them is an extra step that can be taken to protect wildlife. In general, being conscious about using plastic products and opting for reusables can help mitigate the negative effects of plastic pollution. Most importantly, the best way to reduce the growing issue of plastic during the pandemic is through a united global effort to help increase awareness. If more people are conscious of their daily choices and how they affect the environment, we can truly make a difference and help save our planet.
In summary, the increase in disposable mask usage since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic has had significant detrimental effects on the environment. The plastic materials used to produce masks are extremely difficult to decompose. Hence, they end up in aquatic environments and ecosystems which results in many harmful effects towards wildlife. Scientists and researchers are working on a variety of potential solutions to this growing issue. In the meantime, it is important to take action in our own lives and spread awareness to help save our planet.
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