Facemasks’ Environmental Impact

During this Lockdown Economy caused by COVID19, our hygiene habits and protocols have changed. Some accessories, such as facemasks or face shields will remain as part of our fashion essentials for a while, as they had been declared mandatory since last May 2020.

Environmental Impact of Personal Protection Equipment PPE (New Shielding Accesories)

Therefore, many fashion brands have launched different models of facemasks made with sustainable materials and others have opted for less sustainable, semi-synthetic materials, but with filters that offer different levels of protection against biological and chemical haazards.

Most of the disposable facemasks are made from plastics including polypropylene, polythene and vinyl, materials that will end into the oceans and take up to 450 years to decompose. Fashion is already the second most polluting industry in the planet, therefore, we can’t continue consuming without awareness, respect and care for the environment.

According to a study in the Environmental Science and Technology’s Journal, an estimated 129 billion disposable face masks and 65 billion gloves are used every month worldwide. Therefore, we should start developing solutions to reduce, mitigate and eliminate de main causes of current sanitary crisis and implement waste management good practices at all levels.

One of the main environmental impact of synthetic facemasks is that unfortunately most of them are released and absorbed into the oceans. Thereafter, plastics break down into smaller pieces over time, and the longer litter is in the environment, the more it will decompose. Plastics first break down into microplastics and eventually into even smaller nanoplastics. These tiny particles and fibres are often long-lived polymers that can accumulate in food chains (marine biodiversity). Just one mask can produce millions of particles each, with the potential to also carry chemical hazards and bacteria up the food chain and potentially even into humans.

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Reduction of Facemasks’ Environmental Impact – Waste Management

Last March 2018, a study led by the Ocean Cleanup Foundation reported the presence of an entire island of 1.8 billion plastic waste in the Pacific Ocean with an estimated weight of 80,000 tons. Can you imagine how many non-biodegradable and toxic waste, we are generating with the increase in demand for personal protective garments and accessories? What about when domestic and international flights are reestablished? Are you aware of the waste management procedures that have been adopted?

The conservation organization Oceans Asia announced the urgency of creating a second and third life for facemasks, filters, and gloves.   In Puerto Llano, Spain a company called Therman had started offering recycling services and this type of initiative must be replicated all over the world.

In Spain, the Senior Council for Scientific Research announced some weeks ago a project developing biodegradable antiviral filters that could be changed daily in masks. Other alternatives include those of KAIST Korea’s science and technology university, , which announced in March that it had succeeded in creating reusable filters that can then be washed, while maintaining efficacy similar to the disposable surgical masks. Or, the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, which in April announced the launch of facial protection equipment that could be reused after being disinfected; it should be ready for at-scale production and sold at affordable prices.

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Sustainable Textiles Research and Development Challenge

In Latin America some shielding textiles had been developed combining natural fibers such cotton, alpaca, silver and copper fibers, based on the anti-bacterial and virucidal properties of these metals. There are still some further research to be made though, since not all of them comply with the medical textiles´s standards.

What about the facemasks that we can made at home? Majority are made with cotton fabric, but will not completely protect the wearer, but they help to reduce the risk of infecting others. Then, a proper protective filter is needed to enhance its shielding features effectively.  

If we compare the CO2 footprint of each fabrication process: N95 Facemask footprint is 20% less than homemade ones, but the picture is different after a 30-day usage, since the homemade ones can be reused and washed.

Which actions shall we take to reduce Facemasks’ Environmental Impact?

According to the World Health Organization, the following recommendations can be implemented into our daily lives:

  1. Use reusable masks without disposable filters. Machine wash them regularly following the instructions for the fabric.
  2. Try to carry a spare so if something goes wrong with the one you’re wearing you don’t need to use or buy a disposable mask.
  3. If you do need to use a disposable mask, take it home (maybe in a bag if you have to take it off) and then put it straight into a bin with a lid. If this isn’t possible, place it in a proper public bin.
  4. Don’t put disposable masks in the recycling. They can get caught in specialist recycling equipment and be a potential biohazard to waste workers.
  5. Whatever you do, don’t litter them!

2020 will be the year that we will remember as a year of social distance, accelerated digitalization, but also a year of COVID19 Waste Impact, as there is an urgent need to disseminate and implement material waste disposal procedures and create recollection/reuse centers for the waste generated by the new protective garments and essentials.   Nevertheless, there are various lines of research currently underway aiming to create protective equipment for the public that has less of an impact on the environment. 

Sources:La Voz de Puerto Llano newspaper, BBVA Science and Environment Face Masks and Recycling: Moving Towards a New Sustainable Normal,The Guardian Newspaper ‘More masks than jellyfish’: coronavirus waste ends up in ocean,Ecochain The rise of the face mask: What’s the environmental impact of 17 million N95 masks? ,INTEXTER UPC Universidad Politécnica de Cataluña and ISO Fiber and Yarns Standards.

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