Facemasks’ Environmental Impact

This summer is quite different from the ones we had experienced in the last decades. During this Pandemic Era 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 long time, as they had been declared mandatory in Spain since the past May 2020 among other countries around the world.

Personal Protection Equipment as New Shielding Accesories :

Given this new context, many 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 contaminating agents.

The current economic crisis is leading us to acquire more frequently very cheap and effective materials, without taking into account that fashion is the 2nd most polluting industry on the planet and ignoring the great damage that we are once again causing to our marine ecosystems due to poor waste management of shielding textile materials.

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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.

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. 

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 LATAM 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 this metals. There are still some further research to be made though since not all the current material filters comply with the minimum standards that applied to medical textiles.

In regards of the facemasks that currently are made at home by using a simple cotton fabric. These facemasks will not protect the wearer, but they help to reduce the risk of infecting others. Although if a proper protective filter is added the shielding features can be improved effectively.   In regards of the footprint even though the production of a N95 Face Mask has a CO2 footprint 20% less than the DYI ones. The picture is different after a 30-day usage, since the second ones can be reused and washed.

Since small changes can reduced enormously our footprint, here we have some guidelines:

1. Opt for more sustainable materials such cotton, hemp, alpaca or even al old cotton bed sheet or T-Shirt for making your DYI with a minimum of 3 scaffolds.

2. Improve shielding effectiveness by choosing the right protective filters (With high level of MERV minimum efficiency reporting value, certified by ISO 16603/04, EN 14126 or AATCC M14-2020 Guidance and Considerations for General Purpose Textile Face Coverings .

3. And finally, reduce your consumption of plastic or any synthetic material or fabric including its different type of packaging.  

Therefore, all must agreed that healthy and safe human consumption habits, healthy ecosystems and less probabilities of future pandemias.

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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