Discarded Face Masks Are Wreaking Environmental Havoc


Here is how we can help to prevent this.

Originally published in illumination: https://medium.com/illumination-curated/discarded-face-masks-are-wreaking-environmental-havoc-heres-how-we-can-take-positive-action-455e54cb32f8

Illustration by author.

We are living in an era where face masks have become an integral part of everyday life. This is something that none of us could have anticipated, and that became a necessity so fast that no one had the opportunity to investigate the impact of billions of people purchasing and disposing of this (now) commodity item.

It’s only now that we are starting to see and understand the gravity of this situation.

‘Face masks intended for medical use and protection against viruses are designed and regulated as disposable. If every person in the UK used one disposable surgical mask each day for a year, this would create over 128,000 tonnes of unrecyclable plastic waste (66,000 tonnes of contaminated waste and 57,000 tonnes of plastic packaging)’— University College London.

This waste is also posing a new hazard to wildlife with animals becoming tangled in the straps. A photo of a seagull with a mask wrapped around its legs went viral and lead to the RSPCA’s CEO to release a statement asking for the public’s help. The seagull has made a full recovery, but this, along with many other incidents, could have been prevented.

‘Now that face masks are the norm, and may be for some time to come, this message is more important than ever as thousands of these masks are being thrown away every day. We’re concerned discarded face masks could become a significant hazard, particularly to wild animals and birds’ — Chris Sherwood, CEO, RSPCA.

It’s time to take action before it’s too late!

Photo by 🇨🇭 Claudio Schwarz | @purzlbaum on Unsplash

If you don’t read any further than this first part, please do this one simple thing.


Before you throw your mask away — Thank you!

The need for a mask.

As we were reasonably unprepared for the arrival of this pandemic, when it did become clear that we would all be wearing masks for the foreseeable future, it was too late for (most of us) to go on a mask crafting expedition. Instead, we bought whatever we were able to get out hands-on, which for many, was whatever was left on the shelves. This has meant billions of people have been buying single-use masks, masks that often come individually wrapped in plastic bags, before finally being sealed in an additional plastic packet.

Back in March 2020, the World Health Organisation estimated that 89 million medical masks would be needed each month globally for health workers. In June the American Chemical Society published an abstract in which the estimate had reached hundreds of billions!

So what can you do?

Disposal is tricky, because of bacteria, contamination and the risk of spreading infection, you still need to be diligent so are somewhat restricted as to how you can safely deal with your mask at the end of its life.

For correct disposal instructions, please ensure to follow the guidelines of your local government, council or health authority.

There are still a few simple things that can help to alleviate this extra stress that has been put on our environment.

1. Make a reusable mask

Why is this better?
It’s better because it’s potentially free and can be made from things you already have at home. I would suggest making a batch, so you’re not having to wash and dry them every single day.

Don’t have elastic? Use hair ties, don’t have material? Use a bandana!

These are great as they can be washed and reused indefinitely, meaning they are not contributing to plastic waste. They are often upcycled, so, it’s the perfect use for those old bits of fabric you have kicking around. It also means you can be super creative and do all sorts of cool things like embellishing them with sequins or matching them to your outfit.

There are a bunch of free resources on the internet to help you to DIY your masks. For some of them, you don’t even need to sew anything! I have included some of my favourites below to help get you started.

2. Buy a reusable mask

Why is this better?
Same as above, a reusable option is always better; this immediately lowers your waste impact. It also means you can choose what your mask is made from, so it gives you the power to select materials that are natural and less harmful.

I am not going to talk through the simple fabric scrap masks that you can find in most places now; there is nothing wrong with them, they are great; it’s just that these are abundant, you don’t need my help for that.

I want to focus in on the ones that have special qualities; this is a rundown of ethical, recycled, low impact and biodegradable options. I have done the groundwork in the hope it makes it a bit less daunting for you.

Please also consider the following points:

  • The more something is made from natural materials, the less damage it will do when it is returned to the ground. So if you are looking at something made from reclaimed ocean plastic, it is still plastic so that should be purchased with a view that you will keep it for an extended amount of time.
  • Where are you buying this from, can you buy it locally? That’s always the best option for your community and the carbon footprint.

Why are they good?

Liore’s masks are made from an anti-microbial natural textile cork exterior and a non-woven fabric interior. They help to eliminate bacteria and do not absorb dust, making them ideal for allergy and asthma sufferers. They are super lightweight, water-resistant, breathable, durable, and not to mention biodegradable!

Liore's Cork Face Protection

Why are they good?

100% recycled materials (except the elastics) made from reclaimed ocean plastics. Washable and reusable, come with a filter pocket and filters, you can buy replacement filters on their site. For every mask sold they donate two medical-grade respirators to those in need. They have multiple accreditations, including Bluesign and Global Organic Textile Standard.

Why are they good?

They are made from unbleached Hemp, Organic Bamboo Jersey, Biodegradable natural rubber Elastic from child labour free plantations in Malaysia. Even the packaging is 100% plastic-free and recyclable.

Why are they good?

They are organic cotton and recycled Polyester mix. They have been designed to catch larger droplets when speaking or coughing. Every mask sold raises money for Doctors Without Borders — they are already halfway to their million Euro goal.

Why are they good?

These made it into the mix because of their story. It’s inspirational; we need more businesses to think in this way!

In the height of COVID-19, their ethical NYC garment factory was closed for standard production; instead, they made PPE supplies, including masks from deadstock fabric. When regular service resumed, Miakodo went to check on production and found piles of masks.

‘The factory is still making masks, but so many of them came out “imperfectly” — to keep them from going to landfill, we bought them from our factory and are selling them here’

They also manufacture locally to keep their carbon footprint low, use low impact non-toxic dyes in all their products, and all their materials are GOTS certified or Control Union accredited.

Why are they good?

They are entirely natural and also biodegradable. Made from abaca, which is the strongest natural fibre, they’re washable, reusable, water-repellent. They are also certified fair trade, supporting a community of around 350 artisans in the Philippines. They have stopped selling the masks in small quantities but can support volume orders.

3. Snip the elastics or ties

Why is this important?
This is the big one, but also the most simple.

I am here to ask you to do this one simple thing to help to protect animals, and that is to snip off the elastics or any other ties before you throw your mask away. These are what are causing the issues; animals are getting tangled in them and can’t escape.

This one simple act makes a huge impact.

Thank you!

I hope this has explained the basics of why putting this amount of single-use plastic into the environment is so damaging and given you the tools that you need to be able to make or buy better alternatives.

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