Wearing a face mask has rightly become the new normal for many, as we try to protect ourselves and others from COVID-19. But the rise in single-use masks and disposable gloves around the world has also come with a huge environmental cost.
“We’ve found masks on beaches all around Hong Kong,” says Gary Stokes, co-founder of Oceans Asia, who first noticed an increase in single-use masks being washed up at the end of February 2020. One of the biggest concerns? That marine life might mistake the masks for food. “We’ve seen whales and dolphins washing up with plastic bags inside their guts,” Stokes says. “A similar thing could happen with these masks.”
It’s a worrying picture seen right across the world, with conservationists from France’s Côte d'Azur to Miami in the US finding COVID-19 waste blighting our coastlines. Researchers from University College London estimate that if every person in the UK used one single-use mask each day for a year, that would create 66,000 tonnes of plastic waste alone.
Single-use masks are typically made from polypropylene, a fossil fuel-derived plastic that can take hundreds of years to break down. Meanwhile, they also shed tiny harmful microplastics into our waterways, which are then consumed by unsuspecting fish (and then us, when we eat seafood). And while disposable gloves made out of latex are biodegradable, ones made out of nitrile and vinyl are not.
But can single-use masks and gloves be recycled? It’s a challenge, particularly as virgin plastic is so cheaply available. “PPE [personal protective equipment] is made from a complex mix of materials that require specific machinery and techniques to recycle,” comments Stephen Clarke, head of communications at TerraCycle Europe, which has launched a new scheme to tackle the problem. “It costs more to collect, separate and recycle the PPE than the value of the resulting recycled material. If the economics don’t work, [authorities] don’t have the incentive to collect and recycle PPE.”
Photo by Salvatore Laporta/KONTROLAB/LightRocket via Getty Images
© KONTROLABSwitch to reusable options instead
Luckily, there are more eco-friendly options on the market, with conscious brands such as Collina Strada making cloth masks out of deadstock or leftover materials. “While in quarantine, there was no access to new fabrications, so we just started making masks based on what was available in the studio and at the cutter,” says Hillary Taymour, the label’s New York-based founder.
The designer has even created a DIY guide so that people can make their own masks using whatever fabric they have at home. “I really hope people will start getting crafty and have fun,” she continues. “They can make masks for their friends, family and community.”
According to experts, reusable cloth masks—which should be washed at 60C to kill any virus particles—are just as effective when it comes to stopping the spread of COVID-19 in non-medical settings. “[For] the person on the street, the cloth masks are perfectly adequate,” says Dr Jane Greatorex, a virologist at the University of Cambridge. “We’re encouraging people to wear masks to protect others around you because you don’t know whether you’re asymptomatic; [cloth] masks stop the larger droplets from leaving you.”
Meanwhile, Dr Greatorex says gloves may give us a false sense of protection and are not required when we’re going about our day-to-day business. “I’m a big advocate for no gloves,” she comments. “If [people] wash their hands, they’re protecting themselves and they’re protecting everyone else.”
Photography by Jonathan Daniel PryceThe pandemic could speed up future solutions
In hospitals and doctors’ surgeries, though, the use of single-use masks and gloves is more difficult to get around. Medical waste is typically incinerated after use for public health reasons, contributing to greenhouse gas emissions—although other options, such as disinfecting the waste before recycling it, are possible.
Scientists are also looking at more eco-friendly alternatives to the medical masks currently on the market, with researchers at the University of British Columbia currently developing a biodegradable mask made of wood fibres. “[The masks] will be fully biodegradable, made out of just wood,” says researcher Daniela Vargas Figueroa. “We’ll be utilising wood fibres that are fully available here in British Columbia, where we have a very sustainable forest industry.”
Meanwhile, bioplastics (made from natural materials) are another potential alternative, although the unique properties of surgical masks, which prevent tiny virus particles from getting through, are difficult to recreate. “We have to look at if green polymers will be able to do the job or not,” comments Dr David Fengwei Xie, a materials scientist at the University of Warwick. “There’s potential, but we need a lot of investment in that area.”
The pandemic has undoubtedly shone a spotlight on the problem, meaning we could see more sustainable solutions sooner rather than later. “I do believe [that] because of this pandemic, a lot of people will put efforts into this area,” Dr Fengwei Xie says. “Hopefully we will find an alternative in the near future.”
For now, though, we can all do our part by using cloth masks instead of disposable ones — and avoiding single-use plastic where possible. “People can get hold of reusable masks quite easily,” Stokes concludes. “[We don’t want] single-use plastic [to] become the new norm again.”