The environmental impact that disposable face masks have had thus far is like nothing we’ve seen before. Sustainable practices were no longer in practice when the global pandemic became real - with Keep Cups banned from cafes and single-use gloves mandatory at the grocery store. One green practice that we can still implement is using a reusable mask rather than a disposable one.
With a predicted two years of COVID-19 still on the books, this means that thousands of masks will be manufactured, worn and disposed of - probably not correctly either.It got us thinking, how does this all impact the environment? Like from the rules and regulations, the manufacturing process, right to the end of its life?
We briefly looked into the lifecycle of a mask from a global perspective:
Wearing a mask in Eastern Asia has become quite common since SARS back in 2002-2003. Same applies to residents of Japan, who use masks to protect themselves, as well as others from infection. However in western culture, not so much. It is now mandatory in 50 countries to wear a mask in public spaces, with repercussions of fines or jail time. This has been great for reducing transmission, however not great for the environment considering disposable masks are a cheaper alternative.
Supply has been a major issue - with China being the main source. China had no longer allowed subcontractors to export, as they wanted to look after their own first. This left major shortages in Italy, Spain, and Egypt, leading to a mass spread of the virus and an increase in mask production.
However, environmental practices are slowly being implemented so that we have access to a more sustainable option for face masks.
Use and throw
Contributing to the already some 8 million tonnes of plastics, COVID-19 waste could contribute an extra predicted 66,000 tonnes of contaminated waste and 57,000 tonnes of plastic packaging. Most countries lack guidelines on how to actually dispose of facemasks properly.
In many countries, masks simply end up in the street, beach, or the countryside. Most face masks are made up of polypropylene, a dense material that degrades over countless decades. To limit the ecological damage scientists are seeking ways to decontaminate surgical masks to allow repeated use.
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