Environmental Impact of Disposable Masks

Contributor: Aayushi Kumar
Environmental impacts of disposable masks

Birth of an environmental hazard

The World Health Organization (WHO) on March 11, 2020, declared the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak a global pandemic and till now it has impacted each and every person across the globe. This historic outbreak shall bring about many changes in the social lives of people. It is natural for every person to do everything possible to protect themselves from this virus. There are many guidelines being issued by governments of every country for citizens to safeguard themselves. One of the most prominent precautions is using face masks and respirators.

Given that face masks are supposed to be worn for no longer than one day, their disposal is leading to a massive heap of waste in the environment. When suddenly almost the entire population of maximum countries starts wearing one to two masks per day, one can imagine the trash amount generation. While we fight against this invisible enemy geared up with masks, respirators, disinfectants, sanitizers, and much other medical equipment we must also pay attention to the birth of a dangerous environmental problem that will last longer than the virus. 

With the quick escalation of the COVID-19 cases all across the globe, waste disposal is the next biggest problem awaiting. Already, on Hong Kong’s small and uninhabited Soko Islands an environmental NGO Oceans Asia counted 70 discarded masks on a 100m stretch of a beach. A week later, another 30 masks were discovered there. On other beaches around Hong Kong plastic pollution from face masks has reached a similar level.

Why masks can't be disposed off or recycled? 

Most of these masks contain or are made of polypropylene, which does not break down quickly. Marine plastic pollution is a serious problem. It is estimated that every year, over eight million tonnes of plastic enter our oceans. This plastic does not disappear but rather slowly breaks down into micro-plastic, which enters food chains, with devastating effects.

These masks cannot be recycled as well. The reason is that the used face masks may carry germs involving the coronavirus, they shouldn't be randomly discarded as waste. Since the virus can survive for one or two days in humid conditions, the used masks may become a new source of infection. If the waste masks are tossed in a confined space such as an elevator, they may contaminate the environment, posing a potential threat to people within it. Also face masks used by the general public could be a source of infection for sanitation workers if not properly discarded.

Is there a way to dispose?

According to the WHO’s health guidelines, soiled tissues and used face masks must be thrown only into lidded litter bins, while any medical gear used by affected patients and hospital staff must be sterilised and burnt at high temperatures in dedicated incinerators. It is stated that only state-of-the-art incinerators operating at 850-1100° C, with special gas-cleaning equipment, can burn these items in accordance with international emission standards.

Medical waste incinerator
Medical waste incinerator
However, considering the amount of trash being generated in such short span of time, the incinerating facilities in different regions are unable to cope up. This issue was recently faced by the Corona epicentre- Wuhan, in China as reported by South China Morning Post. 

Is there a sustainable alternative?

The use of cloth face masks can be an alternative. Conventional fabrics like cotton, block liquid droplets and can provide incremental protection against the airborne particles. 

Homemade masks
Obviously, those in constant contact with people affected by the virus have to use disposable masks for safety reasons. But in certain circumstances, the use of a cloth mask can be a sustainable choice from a waste perspective as well as help alleviate the current medical supply shortage. Moreover, cloth masks are washable, reusable, and recyclable. A perfect choice for many consumers that care for sustainably.

3-PLY Droplet Resistant Antibacterial Masks and Nano Silver Antibacterial Masks. 
In Vietnam, several textile businesses are dedicating the production to antibacterial masks.
In particular, our suppliers are developing 3-PLY Droplet Resistant Antibacterial Masks and Nano Silver Antibacterial Masks to help combat the virus.

These masks are made of 100% cotton and can be washed and dried for reuse.
The 3 integrated layers offer great protection against airborne particles and droplets containing viruses and bacteria. In particular, the one in the middle is treated with Silver Nano-technology that works as a safety filter. In fact, it eliminates small particles of bacteria that pass through the outer layer of the mask.

What else can be done?

This rising issue calls for visionary planning and action of medical waste treatment management around the world. Many private waste management agencies in some countries have come up with coronavirus-specific decontamination services, it is also equally important for governments to step up and find solutions quickly.

For example, China chooses the Sterilwave solution developed by Bertin Technologies for on-site treatment of waste contaminated by the coronavirus in hospitals in Wuhan region. The machines used by this company make it possible to grind down and sterilize all types of hospital waste that may potentially have been contaminated by the coronavirus using microwave treatment, and therefore remove the need to take this waste outside the hospital, which poses a significant risk of external contamination.

Also, it is each individual’s responsibility to utilise the masks rationally and follow the necessary guidelines while disposing of their masks and other medical gear. We as a community are already facing a pandemic and are well aware of how nature makes its way to heal itself. Why not learn from this experience and react proactively to avoid a similar or perhaps worse situation in the future.


About the Author: Aayushi Kumar, an NIFT, Kolkata graduate, and Co-founder of Ednam Solutions Pvt Ltd is working in the field of female healthcare and hygiene, making smart garment. Her interests include sustainable fashion, functional garments and luxury brand management.

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