Disposable Face Masks: Protection or Pollution?

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By P.J. Heller

Billions of single-use disposable face masks produced worldwide since the start of the coronavirus pandemic – the majority of which contain plastic and are non-biodegradable and for which there are scant recycling options — could create an environmental nightmare, experts warn.

“Face mask pollution could lead to an environmental disaster,” summed up one headline.

The World Health Organization, government officials and health experts worldwide and others have stressed the importance of wearing face masks to slow the spread of Covid-19. In some areas, use of a disposable or reusable cloth face covering is mandatory, as the virus continues to run rampant. More than 93 million cases and 2 million deaths have been reported worldwide as of mid-January 2021, just over one year after the virus was first detected in Wuhan, China. The U.S. accounted for nearly 24 million of those cases and nearly 400,000 deaths, far outpacing any other country. 

Some researchers, meantime, are warning of a worldwide “plastic pandemic” due to the use of personal protective equipment (PPE) as well as other plastic packaging materials.

Environmental Science & Technology reported that mismanagement of 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.

Streets, beaches, parks and oceans have been littered with Covid-19 waste including face masks, plastic hand-sanitizer bottles, gloves and plastic packaging. Questions have been raised about whether these plastics have gone from “protector of the public” to “polluter of the environment.”

“If historical data is a reliable indicator, it can be expected that around 75 per cent of the used masks, as well as other pandemic-related waste, will end up in landfills, or floating in the seas,” according to a United Nations estimate.

“Plastic pollution was already one of the greatest threats to our planet before the coronavirus outbreak,” said Pamela Coke-Hamilton, director of international trade for the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development. “The sudden boom in the daily use of certain products to keep people safe and stop the disease is making things much worse.”

Chief among the items in that boom are disposable face masks.

The disposable face mask market in the United States is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 60.8 percent from 2020 to 2027, according to Grand View Research, a market research and consulting company.

In Canada, one company alone is ramping up to manufacture more than 22.5 million masks a month, running its production lines 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

“Face masks play an important role in reducing virus transmission,” noted James Bokla, chief executive officer at Viva Healthcare Packaging in Toronto. “As municipalities are mandating the use of face masks in all public spaces, Viva is ramping up production of three-ply disposable face masks, in regular and children's sizes, to over 22.5 million masks per month by early 2021. We are honored to apply our expertise in high volume manufacturing towards PPE production, to help combat Covid-19, and to prepare for potential future challenges with an ample and timely supply.”

Disposable face masks are typically three-ply (three layers), consisting of a melt-blown polymer, most commonly polypropylene, placed between non-woven fabric, plus two elastic ear loops. A metal or plastic strip is typically sewn in across the top of the mask to help it conform to the shape of a face.

As the masks degrade, microplastic particles can break down further into smaller size microplastics.

“When they {masks] are whole, wildlife is going to get tangled in it or the plastic is going to be ingested. They aren't going to biodegrade either, although they will break up, introducing more microplastics into the sea and the food chain,” Laura Foster of the Marine Conservation Society in the UK told BBC News.

“As we face the Covid-19 crisis, we all want to do our bit to keep others safe. Wearing face coverings is a vital part of that, but it shouldn't cost the earth,” added Sarah Olney, climate and business spokesperson for the Liberal Democrats in the UK.

“Despite millions of people being told to use face masks, little guidance has been given on how to dispose of or recycle them safely,” noted the online publication Mic. “And as countries begin to lift lockdown restrictions, billions of masks will be needed each month globally. Without better disposal practices, an environmental disaster is looming.”

Writing in Science of the Total Environment, researchers Oluniyi O. Fadare and Elvis D. Okoffo said that “the increase in production and consumption of face mask across the world has given rise to a new environmental challenge, adding to the vast plastic and plastic particle waste in the environment . . . This new emergence of face masks as environmental litter both in the terrestrial and aquatic environment is a piece of evidence that the global pandemic has not in any way reduced the challenge of increasing plastic pollution in the environment.”

Some officials are urging the public to use masks made of non-fossil fuel plastic substitutes. Reusable masks are available in cotton, while others are offered in hemp and bamboo. Some researchers were experimenting with creating disposable masks from agricultural waste.

Efforts aimed at recycling disposable masks appear to be limited.

One recycling effort was started in July in France, when Plaxtil co-founders Jean-Marc Neveu and Olivier Civil began taking in disposable plastic-based masks. They have since recycled more than 100,000 masks.

“We said to ourselves: it's not possible, it's not inevitable that these masks will end up either in nature or incinerated,” Civil told international news channel France 24. “We can recycle them; we can do something with this material and we can renew their value.”

The process involves isolating the masks for four days, then grinding them down and treating the small pieces with ultraviolet light to decontaminate them. The material is mixed with a binding material and then molded into plastic products, including plastic visors used for PPE. 

TerraCycle, a global recycling company headquartered in New Jersey, offers a “Zero Waste Box” for disposable plastic-based masks, including three-ply surgical masks, KN95 and N95 masks (medical waste is not accepted). Boxes range in size from small (11 inches by 11 inches by 20 inches) to large (15 inches by 15 inches by 37 inches) with prices ranging from $88 to $219. No information was immediately available about how the masks were recycled.

TerraCycle offers Zero Waste Boxes for a variety of other products, ranging from action figures and baby food pouches to used chewing gum, VHS tapes and pet food packaging.

At the recent Consumer Electronics Show in January, some companies showed off high-tech masks. One mask which featured LED lighting was touted by the company as “the world’s smartest mask.” Another company showed off a mask with a Bluetooth headset. There was no mention of whether the masks would ever be produced or what they might cost.

In a recent article in The Atlantic, authors Zeynep Tufekci, an associate professor at the University of North Carolina, and Jeremy Howard, a researcher at the University of San Francisco and co-founder of the Masks4All campaign, questioned why people were not wearing better face masks, calling it “a disastrous public-health breakdown in the United States.

“Even all cloth masks are not equal,” they wrote. “Construction, materials, and fit matter, and these can’t be tracked or certified with homemade masks.

“Tragically, America is swamped with fraudulent medical-grade masks, some of which are only 1 percent effective,” they said. “Many masks do not have labels clearly indicating their manufacturer. Some official mask-testing methods are inappropriate, including the use of far higher pressure than normal breathing exerts. No reasonable certification is available for the most useful masks generally available to the public. All of this means that everyone has to somehow figure out for themselves which masks are effective.” How many of those masks might end up on the street, on a beach, in the trash or elsewhere was the question.

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