Face Masks Are Hurting The Environment

Disposable masks are usually made of polypropylene, which can break into microplastics and if eaten by wildlife can block their digestive tracts.
Posted at 9:03 PM, Jan 11, 2022

On sidewalks, subways and sewer grates, single-use mask litter is everywhere. 

In Chicago, it's not unusual to find discarded masks mixed in with snow. 

KN95 masks and N95 masks are the highest barrier of protection. They perform better than the surgical-type mask, which performs better than the traditional cloth mask.

Medical experts recommend high-quality single-use masks instead of reusable cloth masks, and while they better protect us from the Omicron variant, they also create a lot of trash. 

The environmental impacts from discarded masks are huge. "Just in 2020, it was estimated that approximately 1.6 billion of these types of masks ended up in our oceans," said Michele Okoh, senior lecturing fellow at Duke University's Environmental Law and Policy Clinic. "That's roughly 5,500 tons of plastic pollution."

Disposable masks are usually made of polypropylene, which can break into microplastics, which can block the digestive tracts of wildlife if eaten.

"It's estimated that one face mask can turn into 173,000 microfibers per day in our seas," Okoh said.

Globally, one study estimates 3.4 billion face masks are discarded every day. 

There are some ways to help protect the environment. A New Jersey company, TerraCycle, has been recycling disposable masks for 15 years, transforming them into flooring and park benches.

"The problem is most objects, packages and products that we interact with are not recyclable, not because they can't be, but because they cost more to collect and process than the results are worth," TerraCycle CEO Tom Szaky said.

One way to help is to use masks more than once. 

"If you put the KN95 mask into a paper bag overnight, by the next day, it is appropriate to use this again," said Dr. Joseph Gastaldo, medical director of infectious diseases at OhioHealth. "But again, we want you to sanitize your hands before you put it on and do a visual inspection of the mask to make sure that it still fits you properly and it's not degraded."

Still, environmentalists like Michele Okoh say large manufacturing companies should step up when it comes to sustainability. 

"That's a huge burden on consumers, so there needs to be a shift away from that and actually putting the responsibility on companies," Okoh said.