We’ve all been doing our extra bit in recent times to make others around us feel safer. Face masks have been a huge part of that, and with so many of us using them, how do we track their pollution footprint?
Whilst disposable face masks are great protection for us, they’re proving to be a big problem for the environment. They contain chemical pollutants and trace plastics. When submerged in water, plastic fibres release with traces of metal elements. Little animals can also get tied up in discarded masks.
So, we are all certainly doing the right thing in wearing face masks. But there are big questions to be asked about how we can be more conscious of the waste problem masks pose.
How are face masks affecting the environment?
The majority of disposable face masks are, unfortunately, manufactured from plastics which will persist in the environment for decades after being discarded. Though we have all been heavily encouraged to use them, proper disposal practices have not been very heavily emphasized.
Masks often end up discarded as any other waste would, making their way either to the ocean or land somewhere. Either way, face masks have a big effect on their immediate environment.
Whether in water or on land, face masks will release microplastics. A study at the University of Swansea showed that, when submerged in water, face masks release chemical pollutants and non-plastics. They pollute not only with plastics but also with the chemicals used to make them. These chemicals help to protect us against germs but are not so friendly towards our environment.
Masks can also affect animals that find them, as they are easy to become tangled in. You have likely seen the images of sea turtles tangled in beer can plastics. The strings from disposable face masks risk the same trapping of innocent animals if they aren’t properly discarded. These actions will contribute to Australia’s major garbage problem.
What is the pollution of face masks?
The main pollution of disposable face masks comes from the plastics contained within. Like so many everyday things we use and dispose of, cheaply produced plastic is the main reason masks are so easy to mass-produce. But that plastic doesn’t break down and before you know it these face masks will become a part of our common garbage and recycling mistakes.
Rather than breaking down, the plastics in a face mask will be released into the environment as microplastics. These microplastics can have serious effects on both land and sea. In the soil they can seep through to groundwater, infecting and killing both plants and animals.
In the sea the microplastics can have an equally deadly effect, polluting available food in the environment and getting inside the bodies of sea creatures. This poisons them from the inside and can result in the loss of many animals.
Beyond the plastics, the study from the University of Swansea found more and more chemicals in disposable face masks. These findings included industrial dyes and small amounts of toxic metals like lead.
But, while the potential pollution from face masks could be really bad, there is an easy solution. This is knowing how to discard of disposable face masks properly.
What is the best way to dispose of face masks?
The best way to dispose of a single-use face mask involves cutting the strings and making sure the masks are kept in bins. Whether biodegradable or not, cutting the strings helps prevent animals from getting tangled in them. Do not drop the mask on the ground or flush it down the toilet. You must simply put it in the bin and do everything you can to make sure it stays there.
There are many people saying single-use masks should be banned or discouraged within the community. The argument is that moving towards reusable masks is the solution to mask pollution. This is a good idea considering the washing methods we have that allow us to properly sanitize and reuse material masks. This would stop you from having to worry about proper mask disposal.
Other than being conscious of where your disposable masks end up, there isn’t really a great way to dispose of them. We are still in search of a long-term solution considering our energies have been focused elsewhere in recent times.
Face mask pollution solution
There is more than one solution to face mask pollution and still time to fix the potential damage of face mask waste.
As we’ve mentioned, the best solution to the problem of face mask pollution starts with the discouragement of wearing single-use face masks. For disposable masks containing plastics, even if they are safely put in the bin, they have a chance of winding up back in our environment.
Reusable or biodegradable masks are a good solution to this problem. In fact, reusable or biodegradable replacements for other single-use items such as disposable plates would help reduce pollution a lot. You can even get creative, using colourful materials to make your own face mask!
But the WHO currently says that single-use masks are the most effective protection for you and others. With this fact in mind, it is no surprise that so many of us prefer these kinds of face masks. Whilst we need to take responsibility in our efforts to dispose of these masks, manufacturers can help with a solution too.
Manufacturers of face masks should make an effort to find re-usable and biodegradable solutions.
If nothing else, one way we can significantly reduce the potential danger posed by masks is by cutting the strings before discarding them. This reduces and potentially eliminates the possibility of an animal becoming stuck in them.
Are COVID masks biodegradable?
At the moment, the most commonly used COVID face masks are not biodegradable. As mentioned, they are made of plastics and metals, which only break down over a very long time period.
Compostable and biodegradable face masks are available, however. Plant-based masks such as those offered by Eco Green Living are made from plant-based materials. These masks are completely safe to be broken down in the environment.
But these are of course not the masks that are widely available. Masks that are distributed freely, and most disposable masks purchased in shops and supermarkets, are not biodegradable and contain plastics and metals.
So, while compostable masks are available, they make up a very small percentage of all the masks being used. This is partly caused by manufacturers who have not made the time to adjust the methods of face mask composition. But consumers disposal of face masks is the biggest action to be conscious of whilst we wait for the development of more environmentally friendly masks.
Looking to make more of a conscious effort for our environment? We have the 4 best ways to recycle your garden waste and the way to use trees to save water in your garden! Capital Hire Skips offers general and green waste skip bins for hire to help you properly dispose of your home waste.