We’re facing a mask crisis, and this time, it’s not a lack of supply—it’s an overabundance, littering our streets, parks, and oceans in alarming numbers. Since the beginning of the pandemic, surgical masks have been in high demand; but as with any single-use product, they’re wreaking havoc on our planet and wildlife. Attempts to recycle them have failed miserably, and even if they end up in a landfill rather than your local park, they’re piling up at a distressing rate.
The Global Impact of Mask Waste
Historically, medical masks were made from reusable materials such as woven cotton. But by the 1960s, they were replaced with disposable non-woven synthetic fiber materials. Throughout the pandemic, the use of disposable masks has skyrocketed. Greenpeace reports that during the first three months of the pandemic, Taiwan used 1.3 billion disposable surgical masks that generated 5,500 metric tons of waste. That is the equivalent of 1,100 garbage trucks carrying masks alone! Many people are careless when disposing of these masks, causing them to pollute our waterways, tainting ocean ecosystems, and disrupting marine food chains. According to the peer-reviewed scientific journal Environmental Science & Technology, “Mismanagement of personal protective equipment (PPE) during the COVID-19 pandemic, with a monthly estimated use of 129 billion face masks and 65 billion gloves globally, is resulting in widespread environmental contamination.”
Disposable face masks also contribute to greenhouse gases (GHG), and GHG emissions are produced along every step of their life cycle. From the production of the polymer resin, the nonwoven sheet conversion, the face mask assembly, transportation to the site of use, and then on to incineration or landfill transportation, masks crank out a ton of CO2. The University College of London projects the 66,000 tons of mask waste generated each year in the UK results in 178,200 tons of GHG.
Can Face Masks Be Recycled?
The primary reason disposable face masks and other PPE equipment (such as gloves, gowns, and goggles) are largely non-recyclable is that they’re technically medical waste, and potential health hazards to anyone who comes into contact with them. That means that there are unfortunately no healthy or responsible methods of reusing disposable masks. Attempts at sanitizing them have also proven to be extremely toxic. Nurses in Washington State reported that face masks were being collected in order to decontaminate and reprocess them using ethylene oxide. However, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has concluded that ethylene oxide is carcinogenic to humans, increasing the risk of lymphomas and breast cancer.
How Can We Minimize Waste During a Pandemic?
The food we eat, the businesses we support, and the masks we buy to protect ourselves and our loved ones are all choices that have potentially far-reaching consequences for our planet and our health—so please make sure you do your research and choose wisely. In addition to ethically-made, reusable cloth masks, many organizations such as the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI) are making masks from recycled plastics and upcycled ocean waste. And of course, you can also make your own reusable face mask from recycled fabrics, or support a small business that uses recycled or ethically sourced materials. And please, if at any time you do need to use a disposable mask, make sure you break the loops on them to prevent animals from getting tangled up or injured, and don’t forget to dispose of them responsibly in a lidded trash can.
Looking to Buy a Reusable Face Mask? Here Are a Few I Love: