In the past few months, face masks have become a hugely important part of our day-to-day lives. In Victoria, you currently can’t leave the house without one, and there have been calls around the rest of Australia for them to be mandatory on public transport.
But while disposable masks are saving human lives, they’re having an adverse effect on the environment.
On a beach at Bouddi National Park, NSW, one man recently collected 326 disposable masks from the shore. In Hong Kong, a February beach clean found 70 masks along 100 metres, and in the usually crystal waters of the Mediterranean, people are reporting seeing disposable masks floating like jellyfish.
As the COVID-19 pandemic shows no sign of abating, with many countries now entering second waves, the production of disposable masks is set to increase even further, with global sales totalling around $166 billion in 2020, compared to $800 million in 2019.
If every person in the developed world (around 1.3 billion people) used one mask a day for a year, this would generate 1.3 megatonnes of non-recyclable plastic waste, according to a study by University College London. The UN estimates around 75 per cent of these masks would either end up in landfills or simply floating in the sea.
This has several terrible effects on the environment, explains Senior Research Fellow at the Future Industries Institute at the University of South Australia, Dr Michael Short.
“In the short term, there’s the obvious physical risk that discarded masks pose to animals, such as them being tangled in them or choking on them,” he tells Yahoo Lifestyle.
Longer-term, disposable masks — which are usually made from a non-woven fabric, based on polypropylene — can slowly disintegrate into microplastics.
“Microplastics are incredibly harmful,” says Dr Short.
“Firstly, they aren’t digestible, so if animals, birds or even plankton consume them, they just accumulate in their stomachs.
“Secondly, they are damaging to the ecosystem as a whole. These sorts of plastics can take around 20 to 30 years to break down into smaller and smaller pieces. This has a direct toxic impact on the environment.”
How to properly dispose of disposable masks
So, is there a ‘good’ way to get rid of disposable masks?
“At the moment single-use masks aren’t made from recyclable plastic, so while disposing to landfill is not ideal, it’s better than letting them end up in waterways,” says Dr Short.
“The current advice for responsible disposal is to cut the ear loops with scissors before putting in the rubbish bin to prevent entangling wildlife if they end up in the environment. Do not put them in recycling bins as they will hinder recycling efforts.”
It’s not just poorly discarded masks that are an issue. PPE equipment used in hospitals is often burnt, releasing large amounts of CO2.
“From a public health perspective, incineration is the best form of cutting out risk of disease,” says Dr Short.
“In terms of sustainability, the best option would be to recover the waste heat energy as they do in some countries, such as Japan. We should be doing this by default, but it costs money to set up systems like that.”
It’s possible the plastics from PPE equipment could eventually be transformed into renewable liquid fuels, according to research from the University of Petroleum and Energy Studies in India.
Researchers believe that by heating up plastics in the absence of oxygen, this can create a synthetic, biodegradable fuel. “The liquid fuel produced from plastics is clean and has fuel properties similar to fossil fuels,” said co-author Dr Bhawna Yadav Lamba.
Pros (and cons) of reusable masks
In the meantime, the best option in terms of sustainability is reusable masks. Using washable, fabric masks results in a 95 per cent reduction in waste to landfill, compared to single-use disposable masks, according to University College London research.
“However, reusable masks aren’t a silver bullet,” warns Dr Short. “Washing masks separately in hot water has a considerable resource impact.
“The study shows the best approach is to have a higher number of reusable masks in rotation, so you can machine wash them with normal clothes. This is better environmentally than frequent hand washing of only one reusable mask.”
Reusable masks with disposable filters are considered even less environmentally friendly than totally disposable masks. “Handwashing these were found to have the highest environmental impact,” says Dr Short.
Although not widely available yet, single-use biodegradable face masks are slowly coming on to the market.
A French company is making face masks from hemp, and a Vietnamese company has created face masks made from coffee beans which are reusable, biodegradable, and antibacterial.
“These sorts of options will go a long way to limit waste and microplastics in the environment,” says Dr Short.
But things are never simple. He adds: “It’s too early to comment on whether they are better overall from a life cycle perspective.”
How to minimise the environmental impact of your face mask
If you need a disposable mask, try and buy compostable ones
Dispose of single-use masks in the bin, not in recycling
Cut the elastic ear loops before you dispose of them
Wear reusable masks if possible
Wash reusable masks with your normal washing rather than separately in hot water