FACE MASKS - A NECESSARY EVIL?
A year ago, if someone said ‘face masks’, who would have you pictured? Most probably a health care professional. Right? But so much has happened within past several months, and face masks have fast become one of the essential items when leaving home. What we picture when we hear ‘face masks’ now is ourselves or family and friends wearing face masks. Being a primary wearable of a personal protective equipment (PPE) kit, it has been used by a variety of professionals in their potentially hazardous jobs. But it was hardly a wearable that ordinary people possessed yet wore.
But, umm, what about their sustainability factor? With this new trend (or rather, a requirement) of ordinary people wearing face masks comes a new problem; waste.
Face masks today…
Even though we do not have a definitive estimate on how many masks were produced worldwide prior to COVID 19, estimates put daily face mask production in China – the largest face mask producer – around 6 – 10 million as of February 2020. Obviously, this number spiked within the following months as the pandemic hit the other countries and by June 2020, China alone was producing 200 million face masks daily.
The stance posed by governments and international bodies such as WHO regarding ‘the necessity of wearing face masks by the general public’ changed over the time from unnecessary to necessary and it was apparent that their primary concern was to avoid face mask shortage to front line responders. But most of the health care professionals encouraged using face masks of any type emphasizing the fact that prevention is better than curing. Hence, most of the general public choose to wear face masks.
Labelled as disposable, most of these face masks used by public are discarded once used. As we do for almost all of our waste, most of us extend ‘out of my sight – out of my mind’ attitude towards face masks too. But it goes without saying that facemasks do have much larger environmental impact.
Face masks tomorrow…
If every other person in the world used a face mask and tossed it in garbage at the end of the day, it will sum up to 3.8 billion discarded facemasks per day! If we do not have a proper way of disposing these masks, imagine how many used face masks we are going to end up with once we beat the Corona virus.
Face masks – mainly disposable face masks – was a litter problem even before the pandemic. So, you may ask, ‘If they are labelled disposable, aren’t they meant to be disposed of?’. To compile a proper answer, let us take a look at what happens once you throw away a supposedly disposable face mask.
The workers in garbage disposal faces the imminent threat. Because the face masks may retain the pathogenic viruses on them to which the workers may get exposed. So, it is very important that you do not send disposable masks for recycling but in a proper channel set up to handle biologically hazardous garbage.
Most of the disposable face masks or disposable filters used in reusable masks are made up of polymer based synthetic material. So, they do not biodegrade; just like other plastics. If they end up in open garbage dumps or the ocean, there is a good chance that animals will eat them. Most of the animals which eat these along with other plastics face malnutrition as these get stuck in their digestive systems. As well another set of animals face malnutrition, dehydration and suffocation to death as the straps of facemasks entangle them in deadly traps.
The rest of the masks can break into smaller particles under Ultraviolet light to form micro or nano plastic beads. These travel up the food chains and undergo bio magnification as they advance. Hence, we humans being at the top, will get the highest dosage of micro/nano beads. These beads may cause chronic diseases.
So, coming back to our initial question, ‘Yes, disposable masks are meant to be disposed of. But not because they biodegrade naturally, but because they render unusable after a single use.’
While face masks along with other PPE made up of synthetic material has such a potential to affect the natural environment, the sheer volume also matter. Produced in millions, global community is requesting higher production levels to battle the virus. Hence it is time that we acknowledge these adverse effects and take a step in right direction to reduce this potential environmental disaster.
So, what can YOU do?
This is a global problem which needs solutions at higher levels. Nonetheless, we as individuals also can contribute by doing our bit. Simply, if you are not a healthcare professional, you can always choose reusable cloth face mask instead of disposable face masks.
If you are careful enough to socially distance yourself and to sanitize yourself adequately, a cloth face mask will provide adequate protection for you. This will help not only in saving the planet from litter problem, but also in mitigation of surgical grade facemask shortage faced by health care workers who are serving in the front lines in defense against the virus all around the world.
Even with reusable facemasks, how you choose to clean them makes a difference. A working paper from the University of Portsmouth suggests that highest environmental impact can be seen in handwashed reusable facemasks with disposable filters, even more than disposable face masks.
In contrast, least impact is observed for machine washed reusable clothe face masks. So now, you can choose wisely to make the least environmental impact. As well, always carry a spare face mask. So that you would not have to buy a new one if you forgot to bring one or something goes wrong with the one you are wearing.
Moreover, reusable face masks are fashionable too. Don’t you think? Unlike the disposable ones, they come in different sizes and shapes for perfect fit and various colours to match with your outfit.
All in all, face mask is a necessary tool in our war against Corona. But let us not make it our own enemy once Corona is defeated…