Updated April 2021
There has been a surge in production of disposable masks. This is because wearing masks is one way we can control the spread of the Covid-19. With cloth masks, it can be more inconvenient to wash them every time they have been used. So because of this disposable masks have been distributed and bought by millions. While this efficiency might help in everyday life, this disposable method is leading to a major increase of plastic waste.
You may think, “Disposable masks are so thin, how could they really affect plastic pollution?” Well, according to the NCBI (U.S. National Library of Medicine) disposable masks are actually made of multiple different polymers: polypropylene, polyurethane, polyacrylonitrile, polystyrene, polycarbonate, polyethylene, or polyester. Polymers are made of synthetic fibers that have incredibly long lifespans. That means they are super bad for the environment. Additionally, this material is liable to break down into microplastic particles, measuring under 5 mm.
With the outbreak of Covid-19 in 2020, the UNCTD (the UN Conference on Trade and Development) estimates that there have been sales totaling “$166 billion this year, up from around $800 million in 2019.”
This astronomical rise is both a good and bad sign. This is a good sign in that many are taking their own health and others’ health seriously. But it’s also a bad sign in that it is leading to a surge of pollutants. There have been many images this year showing both disposable masks and gloves in the oceans gliding along with stingrays amongst other sea creatures. In fact, Joffrey Peltier, a member of the French non-profit Opération Mer Propre, has said that there could potentially be more masks than jellyfish in the Mediterranean.
Additionally, a UN News article says “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.” They also mention that it could lead to even more economic toil in tourism and fishing industries because of costs in damage.
While the main negative effect of disposable masks is harm to the environment, an earth.org article discusses the effect on “cleaners, garbage collectors and other people who spend a great deal of time in public spaces.” Because these workers are having to dispose of many masks and gloves, they are even more susceptible to the virus. Because the virus can remain on a disposable mask for around seven days, the health of workers who handle the waste is at risk.
This article is about the negative effects of wearing disposable masks. However, I am not trying to convey a negative stigma around masks. If we really want to get through this pandemic, we have to ensure that we take the health of ourselves and others seriously.
If a disposable mask is the only thing available to you, please don’t hesitate to wear it. But if you have the means to acquire cloth masks you can wash after every use, please do. Coronavirus has already caused so much harm. Know that you can take steps to ensure it doesn’t cause harm to the environment.