COVID-19's Mask Pollution: Solution
Updated: Mar 20
This is the fourth article of a four-part series entitled COVID-19’s Mask Pollution about face masks pollution and, amongst other concerns, the impact personal protective equipment (PPE) is inflicting in the environment, specifically the ocean.
COVID-19’s Mask Pollution is mainly based on the report, Masks on the Beach: The Impact of COVID-19 on Marine Plastic Pollution, published by Hong-Kong based marine conservation organisation OceansAsia.
COVID-19’s Mask Pollution: Solution marks the end of this series, which is the first of many series to come.
Throughout this series we talked about all things face masks. Where and how many are produced; how many are used; what are the loss rates; how to predict the scale of damage we’ll have to deal with in the future.
That being said, it’s only suitable that we finish this series with the solutions for some of the problems we have raised in the previous articles.
Without further ado, let’s go ahead and complete this journey together.
Pretty much like the plastic pollution crisis, we have been contributing to, face masks’ pollution cannot be stopped by a single individual or by a couple of organisations. This has to be a collective effort from everyone. The general public, organisations, big brands, designers, governments. We all need to get on the same page and do our part.
Pollution generated by COVID-19 englobes a great deal of problems that require different solutions from various identities. So, don’t wait for your government to do something. Be proactive and start doing something yourself.
Looking at it from different perspectives it is important to mention again that we all play a key role in changing behaviours.
Firstly from an individual one, we choose what we buy and how to dispose of it.
Secondly from a designer’s perspective, they choose the design and what materials to use. Which they can take into consideration aspects like: sustainability, efficiency and durability.
Thirdly from a government standpoint, things will not be so simple or quick, however, you still have the choice to opt for an eco-friendlier version that will translate on a you-friendlier version, and might help move things along.
Face masks are one of the key elements to prevent the spread of respiratory viruses. For the general public, a reusable cloth face mask or face covering will “prevent community spread of infections by sick or asymptomatically infected people, and the public should be educated about their correct use”.
In a medical setting where the stakes are higher, healthcare workers are advised to wear a better equipped disposable one, since they are on the front line.
The use of reusable masks when possible should be prioritised over disposable ones. If you do, you are getting yourself into a win-win situation. You’re getting the protection you need while reducing plastic pollution, and you are letting healthcare workers have access to face masks.
An article published from the Plastic Waste Innovation Hub at University College London estimated that in the UK demand for 24.7 billion face masks would drop to 136 million if everyone used a reusable one. Even though the article assumes that the 136 million would include health workers as well, the difference between the two values abovementioned still is a massive one.
Whether single-use, reusable or biodegradable; every single face mask should be discarded responsibly. Otherwise, we are only adding to an already bad situation.
A recent study conducted by scientists and industry experts - The Pew Charitable Trusts and SYSTEMIQ – claims that by 2040, “current governments and corporate commitments will only reduce the amount of plastic flowing into the ocean by 7 per cent” and “to cut the flow of ocean plastic by 80%, paper or compostable alternatives to single-use plastic would be needed and packaging should be redesigned to more than double the share of recyclable material.”
At an individual level or perhaps as a company activity, beach clean-ups can be extremely effective. They help take out the plastic debris from the beaches that otherwise would end up back in the ocean or would be stranded till a seabird had a meal out of it.
Ocean Conservancy reports that - since 1986 - has had 16.5 million volunteers and has pulled 339.5 million pounds of trash from beaches worldwide. That’s almost 350 million pounds off of our beaches.
As we say here at Green Firebreak, the easiest and the most effective measure to put a stop to this plastic pollution crisis is by reducing the amount we consume every day.
However, while individual actions can work, having technology and design on your side only incentivises sustainable and responsible choices.
One of the examples provided by Masks on the Beach: The Impact of COVID-19 on Marine Plastic Pollution is of self-cleaning masks. Israeli researchers from Technion university created a mask that can disinfect itself in 30 minutes. You just have to plug a mask into a USB cable so the carbon fibres inside the mask can heat up reaching a temperature high enough to kill the virus. The lead researcher, Professor Yair Ein-Eli says, “You have to make it reusable and friendly, and this our solution.”
In France, a similar prototype referred as AIR/R P4 has received funds from the European Union.
Putting all that technology aside there are different, perhaps cheaper, ways you can help. There are many types of reusable masks that you can buy, especially now that we are a year into this pandemic.
There are the normal reusable face masks made from: cotton, bamboo cotton and linen. If you want to go the extra mile you can purchase alternatives, such as: compostable, biodegradable masks made from hemp, wood fibre, coffee yarn, and sugar cane bagasse.
The University of Petroleum and Energy Studies, in India, proposed single-use masks once discarded could be converted into biofuel.
Plaxtil, a French firm that used to recycle clothes, has restructured its business and developed a method to recycle used disposable masks.
NCD Corporation, a company that produces biodegradable and compostable products jumped into the face mask market and developed a water-soluble mask. According to them the masks “decompose within 180 days thanks to the liquids and microorganisms found in the garbage.”
Keeping in mind individual practices and the technology progress behind masks, a key element when it comes to change is the role of a government. They have the power to inform, educate, legislate and ultimately hold people and companies accountable.
Also, supporting and promoting good practices, for instance: the use of reusable masks and the correct way to take care of them; how to correctly discard disposal PPE.
McKinsey & Company, in the management consulting sector, suggests the “influence model” which consists of four general practices: “offering clear and consistent messaging to foster a better understanding of the coronavirus, using formal mechanisms to shape safe behaviour, teaching practical skills to instil confidence, and leveraging role models who reinforce new forms.”
As discussed in our last article – COVID-19’s Mask Pollution: Loss – littering it’s one of the main causes of why all these PPE is ending up on the streets. One of the ways to prevent people from doing it so, it’s the good old fine or the increase thereof. As an example, in France, fines were raised from €68 to €135.
Although we cannot change what we have done till now, we can learn from it and try to change it for a better, cleaner future.
Governments worldwide must have into consideration the impact that SARS-CoV-2 will have on our environment. Legislation regarding single-use plastics must be included in their recovery plans.
Not only in their recovery plans but also in further measures that should be maintained after the pandemic. They can either pick up where they left or should come up with new measures.
Meanwhile, click the COVID-19's Mask Pollution tag below and have a look at the other articles from this series.