It’s no secret that plastic is a major contributor to environmental pollution. With a lifespan of up to 1000 years, bottles, bags and containers are taking up space on land in our oceans, having devastating, long term impacts on the quality of the Earth’s resources and ecosystems.
Inconveniently, it also happens to be the material that many face masks are made of - facemasks that are being produced en masse to supply the world during the pandemic.
In 2020, the face mask has become an essential item for the public citizen. A symbol and tool for protection, combat and against a deadly virus. But what is often described as a tool for unity, is also quickly becoming an item of collective destruction. Unlike plastic bottles and soft plastics which are increasingly being accepted by recycling providers, the risk for contagion means recycling is out of the question for disposable face masks.
Impact on our Environment
While billions of face masks are being distributed, thousands are also showing up on our shorelines, floating in our oceans and strangling sea life. A deadly combination of a ravaging global pandemic and the convenience of one time usage means single use masks are in high demand... and high disposal.
Experts are calling “COVID waste”, and face masks in particular, the “new plastic bottle.” With much of our landfill plastic ending up waterways and seas, the presence of face masks in these places are also inevitable. Medical waste uniquely presents its own problems - with the potential for infection, human health is the chief consideration for disposal, not environmental. The sudden onset of the pandemic means appropriate disposal solutions for mask waste have only been an after-thought as medical professionals focus on containing the virus. The amount of face masks ending up in our environment is now astronomical: The Worldwide Wildlife Fund reports “If even only 1 per cent of the masks were disposed of incorrectly...this would result in 10 million masks per month dispersed in the environment.”
Single use masks (or “surgical masks”) are also generally used by medical professionals. Decreasing our usage of single use masks would minimise PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) shortages and ensure those in medical fields are properly equipped: a critical consideration in a COVID-19 era. The general public in particular are encouraged to wear reusable face masks, which are able to be washed and reused while also offering the same level of protection if used correctly.
The Solution: Reusable!
The good news is, reusable masks are surprisingly accessible with many companies stepping up to the plate to supply facemasks at this time. Arrow Uniforms have a great range of sustainable and professionally made face masks for all ages and sizes, as well as other COVID protective gear on their online store. Check them out here
In a pinch, it's easy to make your own. Cotton is a common and effective material for reusable masks, and something as simple as an old T shirt can suffice. There are tutorials online to make your own reusable face masks (sewing skills optional). Using up old fabrics to make your own is a great option - it means material that would otherwise be bound for the landfill can be upcycled for further (life-saving!) use. Make sure you're keeping you and your family safe by creating a three layer mask to limit any inhalation of bacteria.
Adopting a reusable face mask would mean that we could be saving 66,000 tonnes of contaminated plastic waste or 124,000 tonnes of regular plastic waste.
Now more than ever it’s important to make sure we are doing the best to take care of our global wellbeing, and that involves being conscious of the choices we make. The face mask is a step to prevent the spread of COVID-19, but it also has the potential to wreak havoc on our environment. Choosing a reusable alternative will help us save lives and our planet too.