Face masks: is yours sustainable and safe?

How planet-friendly and effective are different types of face masks?

Depending on where you live in the world, it may be mandatory (with certain exceptions) for you to wear a face covering when you are out and about, or in high-risk public settings, or where physical (social) distancing is not possible.

Personally, I massively appreciate the value of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). My fiancé is a paramedic, I volunteer as lifeboat crew and my parents are both in the vulnerable category, so I will take whatever measures are needed to keep my loved ones – and indeed total strangers I come into contact with – safe.

I have three reusable cotton face masks*, so I can wash them between wears. They’re pretty cute designs too. Hey, I’d even go so far as to say I quite like wearing them, they kinda make me feel like a superhero, with a dash of Hollywood bank robber on the side.

When I had to make a visit to our local hospital during lockdown and before I’d invested in my own face covering, I was given a disposable mask to wear. On exit, I placed that single-use item in the bin. On top of hundreds of other single-use masks. In one of many, many bins around this one hospital. From that day on, I started seeing these familiar, blue surgical masks everywhere, disposed of mindlessly, ending up on our roads, walkways, beaches and in our oceans. Face masks had become the new single-use plastic bag, it seemed.

So, how bad is the PPE plastic pollution problem? And what are the alternatives? Are reusable masks effective in preventing the spread of coronavirus? I decided to do some research and find out.

Who should be wearing a face mask and when?

The Australian Government Department of Health says: “Wearing a mask can help protect you and those around you if you are in an area with community transmission, and physical distancing is not possible”, but where you are in the country will dictate when you should be wearing a mask when out and about. Individual states and territories have their own guidelines, depending on the level of community transmission in each. The guidance also states you may want to wear a mask if you are in a situation where physical distancing is difficult – such as on public transport,

In the UK, where the current cases of COVID-19 continue to rise and new lockdown measures are coming into force, the advice is to wear a face covering (which could include a scarf, bandana or anything else that safely and securely covers the nose and mouth) in certain indoor settings, such as on public transport, in taxis, at supermarkets and in hospitality premises (except when seated and eating or drinking).

The UK government states that the intention of wearing a face covering is to “protect others, not the wearer, against the spread of infection because they cover the nose and mouth, which are the main confirmed sources of transmission of virus that causes coronavirus infection (COVID-19)”.

So in theory, the more people who mask-up, the better the level of overall protection.

Covering the mouth and nose is a public health measure designed to capture respiratory droplets from the wearer (who may not have symptoms) to reduce transmission of respiratory infections – WHO

This is of course a different intention to those in the healthcare setting, where the wearing of a medical-grade face mask is intended to protect patients during surgical procedures or in other medical settings. In the UK, there are different regulations for medical-grade face masks, those that are intended to protect the wearer, or face coverings used by the general public.

How planet-friendly are the most common types of face masks?

It’s probably no surprise that most face masks are made using plastic and are designed to be disposable. How do the three most common types of face masks compare for eco-friendliness and effectiveness?

An infographic comparing surgical masks, N95 respirators and reusable cloth masks, outlining the effectiveness and sustainability of each.

Researchers from the University of Edinburgh’s School of Engineering and the Roslin Institute found someone standing two metres from a coughing person who has no mask is exposed to 10,000 times more droplets than someone half a metre from a coughing person who is wearing a mask (including a cloth mask) – The University of Edinburgh

The PPE problem: healthcare workers need it, and they need a lot of it

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warns that surgical masks and N-95 respirators should not be used by the public, as these are “critical supplies that must continue to be reserved for healthcare workers and other medical first responders”.

To give you an idea of the manufacturing levels needed for the current pandemic – in response to high PPE demand among the general public, health care workers, and service workers, single-use face mask production in China soared to 116 million per day in February, about 12 times the usual quantity.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimated in March this year that to respond to the COVID-19 crisis, 89 million medical masks, 76 million examination gloves and 1.6million googles would be required each month. And that’s just within healthcare settings.

According to WWF in April, if just 1% of single use face masks are disposed of improperly, 10,000,000 of them will enter our oceans every month.

If everyone in the United Kingdom alone used a single-use mask each day for a year, it would create 66,000 tonnes of contaminated waste and 57,000 tonnes of plastic packaging.

What are the alternatives to single-use face masks?

1. Reusable masks

Evidence suggests reusable cloth masks (particularly multilayer cloth masks, designed to fit around the face and made of water-resistant fabric with a high number of threads and finer weave) perform almost as well as single-use masks when used properly, but without the associated waste. And the best part – you can make them at home by reusing old t-shirts, bandanas or scarfs – that’s a double reusing bonus right there! The Australian Government Department of Health has put together guidance on how to make an effective cloth mask.

If you don’t want to make your own, people like Pam Burnett can make them for you. Pam’s company Cream Collection produces sustainable workwear for the hospitality industry. Realising that disposable masks would have a negative impact on the planet, Pam has been producing sustainable reusable masks since the start of the pandemic, made from 100% organic cotton and purposefully designed to biodegrade beyond its use. The masks can be washed and safely reused and include a removable aluminium strip, which can also be recycled.

“When we throw something ‘away’, we don’t always think about where it goes and what impact it has on our environment. It is our role to think about what we can do to reduce the waste we dispose of every day, which at the moment includes an increasing number of single-use face masks – and mask wearing is something that will continue for the foreseeable future,” says Pam.

Pam Burnett founder of Cream Collection, wears a personalised, sustainable, reusable face mask.
Pam Burnett from Cream Collection, wearing a personalised, sustainable, reusable face mask. Credit: Cream Collection

2. Recyclable single-use masks

A UK company founded earlier this year by three uni mates has just launched the world’s first fully recyclable disposable mask. The EcoBreathe by Mask Bros is made of a grade 5 recyclable material, which can be disposed of through local recycling programs. Alternatively, Mask Bros has come up with a way for customers to return their used masks to the company’s own facilities for recycling. Once collected, the masks are broken down into polypropylene pellets and reformed into a variety of recycled items, such as fence posts, shipping pallets and benches.

The EcoBreathe mask is now available in the EU and US, and Mask Bros is working with several other distributors around the world to extend their reach.

When it comes to working with the local recycling systems around the globe, Marcus Worsley from Mask Bros says: “Some countries have better recycling infrastructure than others. If one’s local council accepts grade #5 plastic film recycling then they should be able to accept the masks. Alternatively, with every box we include a prepaid shipping label to allow the masks to be sent back to us, where we collect in bulk and recycle through one of our recycling partners.”

Available in both civil grade or medical grade options, these recyclable masks may provide the answer to what happens to the 89 million medical masks that will be needed to manage the coronavirus pandemic within healthcare settings.

“The issue with reusable masks is that they don’t offer the same level of protection as single use. In practice people tend not to be great at washing them and they end up being a harbour for bacteria. Traditionally they are more environmentally friendly due to the reusable nature however with EcoBreathe one no longer needs to compromise between protection and environmental sustainability, you can have the best of both worlds,” says Marcus.

How to wear a face mask properly

Before you put your mask on

  • Make sure your mask has two or more layers of washable, breathable fabric.
  • Clean your hands (preferably by washing, or by using hand sanitiser if no sink/water available) before touching the mask.
  • Inspect the mask for damage or if dirty.

How to put your mask on

  • Wear the mask over your nose and mouth and secure it under your chin.
  • Adjust the mask to your face without leaving gaps on the side.
  • If you wear glasses, find a mask that fits closely over your nose, or one that has a nose wire to limit fogging (Top tip: I’m a glasses wearer. I find making sure the mask is sitting high up on the bridge of my nose, then placing my glasses on top of the mask, really works to prevent fogging).

Once you have your mask on

  • Do not touch the mask while you’re wearing it.

How to take your mask off

  • Carefully untie the strings behind your head or stretch the ear loops.
  • Handle only the ties or loops.
  • Fold the outside corners together.
  • Don’t touch your eyes, nose or mouth when removing. Wash your hands immediately or, if you’re not near a sink, use hand sanitiser.

How to clean your mask

  • You can include your mask with your regular laundry.
  • Use your normal laundry detergent and the warmest appropriate water setting for the cloth.
  • Make sure the mask is completely dry before you use it again.

According to the CDC, masks should not be worn by children younger than two, people who have trouble breathing, or people who cannot remove the mask without assistance. The CDC also advises that the general public should not wear masks intended for healthcare workers, such as N95 respirators.

One final thought from me

Mask-wearing is becoming a normal part of everyday life and something we’ve all adjusted to pretty quickly. It’s also probably something that isn’t going to go away in a hurry – it has been estimated that there will be five new emerging diseases affecting people every year.

From a sustainability point of view, it’s always better to reuse than recycle. The recycling system around the world is malfunctioning and the less we can make new things (particularly new things that are made from precious and finite resources, like fossil fuels) the better. That said, plastic is not the enemy, it’s what we use plastic for that matters. When we are using finite resources, like petroleum, to make polypropylene for things like medical masks, or medical equipment or life-saving technology, then that’s a finite resource going to good use.

My conclusion from this investigation is this:

  • Unless you are working in patient-facing role, in a healthcare setting or as a carer (in which case, thank you!); or
  • You are one of the millions of people who are classed as vulnerable or high-risk should you contract Covid-19 (in which case, I hope you are safe, well and coping in these strange times); or
  • You work in an industry that requires you to wear or provide disposable face masks (such as the beauty industry); or
  • You are under two years old, have trouble breathing, or cannot remove the mask without assistance; then
  • The best solution for the planet and for the health of the people on it right now is to wear a reusable mask.

It’s awesome to know there is a recyclable option out there for those that need it, particularly within the healthcare or industry-specific settings.

Whichever mask you decide to wear, please be mindful about how you dispose of and remember to ‘snip the straps’, so if it does end up in the environment, it doesn’t become a hazard for wildlife. Follow the guidelines set out above to ensure your mask is clean and secure. Stay safe everyone. And look after each other.

Public health policy must consider the trade-off between efficacy and compliance (a face covering that is 100% effective at preventing transmission but only worn by 10% of the population will have less impact that one that is 50% effective but worn by 95% of the population) – BMJ 2020;370:m3021

References:

F. BerminghamS.-L. Tan, “Coronavirus: China’s mask-making juggernaut cranks into gear, sparking fears of over-reliance on world’s workshop,” South China Morning Post (2020); www.scmp.com/economy/global-economy/article/3074821/coronavirus-chinas-mask-making-juggernaut-cranks-gear.

https://bmjopen.bmj.com/content/5/4/e006577

https://www.health.gov.au/news/health-alerts/novel-coronavirus-2019-ncov-health-alert/how-to-protect-yourself-and-others-from-coronavirus-covid-19/masks

https://www.aljazeera.com/features/2020/07/02/face-masks-gloves-and-a-new-breed-of-plastic-pollution/

https://www.bmj.com/content/370/bmj.m3021

https://theconversation.com/coronavirus-face-masks-an-environmental-disaster-that-might-last-generations-144328

https://www.close-the-loop.be/en/phase/3/end-of-life#:~:text=NON%2DBIODEGRADABLE%20FABRICS,between%2020%20to%20200%20years.

https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/npptl/pdfs/UnderstandDifferenceInfographic-508.pdf

https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/face-coverings-when-to-wear-one-and-how-to-make-your-own/face-coverings-when-to-wear-one-and-how-to-make-your-own

https://www.hse.gov.uk/coronavirus/ppe-face-masks/face-coverings-and-face-masks.htm

https://ourworldindata.org/faq-on-plastics

*I purchased two of my masks from independent businesses on Etsy and one was a handmade gift.

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Charli Ferrand

Charli wrote her first novel at the tender age of 9, then dabbled in the idea of becoming a professional ballerina for a few years, before returning to her love of writing, acquiring a BA (Hons) in Journalism, Film & Broadcast from Cardiff University in the UK. A three-month holiday in Australia turned into a 11 year residency, during which Charli cemented her career in PR & Marketing Communications working with some of the biggest brands in the world. She also gained her citizenship, discovered her passion for sustainability and eventually ended up coming full circle, combining her professional skills with her love of the planet and oceans into her role as Editor-in-Chief of Earth Collective. A trained journalist, experienced communications professional and qualified Mental Health First Aider, Charli has her finger on the pulse of the latest political and environmental developments around the world. You can find her writing about current affairs, political activism and mental health.

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