Masks have been commonplace in some industries for many years. For example, doctors and other medical staff regularly have to don such devices, and many industrial workers must use N95 devices daily. However, the usage of these primarily single-use products has always been mostly limited to professionals in particular industries.
Due to this, although disposable masks have always been an environmental issue, the consequences were relatively minor. With such a small population regularly donning masks, they were not seen as having a significant environmental impact.
This all changed when the COVID-19 pandemic took the world by surprise. Within months of the outbreak being discovered, millions if not billions of people worldwide were required to adopt masks. This led to a massive increase in the number of masks needed, which then led to production shortages worldwide. Within months, China alone was producing 110 million masks per day (1).
While production increased and the world moved to don masks daily, very few people thought about the consequences. By nature, respirators and surgical masks are single-use devices that should be disposed of daily. A study in 2020 showed that India alone had over 4.6 billion masks disposed of per week, with the U.S at over 1 billion (2).
If we apply this data globally, mask waste was likely over 10 billion devices per week during the pandemic's peak. This astonishing number shows a substantial environmental issue that needs to be dealt with immediately. Especially considering that the waste from masks is likely more harmful than other common plastics such as those used in plastic bags (3).
It's all too easy for used masks to find their way into local waterways and land sites where they can impact both terrestrial and marine wildlife. This affects flora and fauna and can also progress up the food chain to humans who consume these animals and the microplastics within.
Luckily, there are ways to minimise the environmental impact that masks have. Even on an individual level, we can significantly reduce the amount of waste we produce. This is due primarily to the introduction of reusable masks capable of similar filtration levels to disposable respirators while also reducing waste.
Why Masks Are an Environmental Danger
While masks are damaging to the environment, they're often seen as an addition to an already-existing plastic pollution problem. While it's true that there was a preexisting problem with plastic pollution, mask waste is an entirely new issue that needs to be dealt with separately. Let's discuss why exactly masks are so detrimental to the environment.
At the current rate, 129 billion face masks are used globally every month. That's 3 million masks per minute or 1.54 trillion per year (3). With an average surgical mask weighing just under 5 grams (9) and a typical N95 respirator weighing around 9 grams (10), this level of waste quickly adds up.
A large number of disposed of masks flow into waterways that lead to the ocean. While this has been an issue with other plastics, especially plastic bags, masks pose a unique environmental issue due to their construction and use of materials.
At their core, most masks are made from or contain a polypropylene layer. Polypropylene (PP) is a petroleum hydrocarbon-based non-renewable polymer that is also non-biodegradable (5). PP is the second most used synthetic polymer after polyethylene (PE), which most plastic bags are made from.
Polypropylene can degrade in quite a short time, usually 20-30 years. However, while it will degrade, it isn't biodegradable and leaves micro and nanoplastics in the environment. These particles can then easily be transported by both wind and water. However, the usage of polypropylene is not the biggest issue.
Mask filters are made up of thousands of small microfibres. These fibres range in diameter and length, but they are often under 10μm in length and under 2μm in diameter. When these ultra-fine fibres enter waterways, they can disintegrate and become micro-sized or nano-sized particles within weeks.
Where plastic bags and other common plastic waste such as bottles can take years or decades to reach this minuscule size, masks can get there within months. This problem is expedited even more with masks that make use of nanofibre filters. In these devices, the fibre size begins even smaller!
These micro and nanoparticles are then ingested by animals, primarily ocean life. Over time, enough plastic particles can accumulate within an animal to be fatal. However, the biggest concern is that these particles move up the food chain as animals consume each other. Of course, this can eventually lead to humans ingesting these microplastic particles in our food (5).
Another factor that makes masks especially damaging to the environment is that it's often not only microplastics that are emitted from such devices. Most masks also contain heavy metals (usually in the wire nosepiece), and many contain dyes - especially the commonly found blue surgical masks.
A study found that many masks contained traces of lead, antimony and cadmium, all metals that can be toxic in low doses. Even more serious is that these heavy metals don't get removed from waterways; instead, they accumulate (6).
Despite these dangers, the most immediate concern is none of the above. While all of these points are harmful to the environment, masks can cause damage even before degrading. For example, masks that make it into waterways such as rivers have regularly been found to entrap local wildlife in their elastic earloops. This has led to the 'snip the straps' campaign by the RSPCA, which asks people to remove mask straps before disposing of them (8).
Since masks can only be recycled or broken down in specialised facilities, the only current option is to place them in general trash. The devices will then be transported to landfills, where they gradually break down over 20-30 years. In the future, recycling and waste disposal facilities may adapt to handle masks, but currently, specialised mask disposal systems exist only in hospitals.
These factors together show why mask waste is an immediate issue that we need to consider. While plastic pollution issues existed pre-COVID-19, masks have created a new problem that needs to be dealt with separately. Let’s take a look at how we can reduce our mask waste.
How We Can Decrease Mask Waste
Making sure masks make it to the trash is the easiest way to prevent our environmental impact.
There is a range of ways to decrease mask waste on a personal, regional and global level. While international cooperation is needed to develop a more environmentally-friendly mask disposal method, there are ways that every individual can make a difference.
There are three ways to minimise the environmental impact of masks:
- Make masks from biodegradable materials
- Correctly dispose of mask waste
- Produce less mask waste
For the former two points, there are limited options from an individual standpoint.
However, the factor that we have the most control over is how much waste we produce. Single-use masks aren’t designed to retain filtration efficacy over time and after wash cycles. Therefore, they shouldn’t be reused. Luckily, there is another option. That option is to use reusable masks.
An MIT study among healthcare workers found that reusing N95 masks after decontaminating them dropped waste by as much as 75% over donning a new mask for every patient encounter (7). The study also indicated that fully reusable masks are likely to drop waste levels even more.
This study was carried out among healthcare professionals, and the impact is likely to be even more significant when considering the vast number of people currently wearing masks daily. Since masks are here to stay, it’s important to consider our environmental footprint now and in the coming years.
When used as intended, disposable masks should be replaced after every use. However, many people do reuse single-use masks to decrease costs and waste. The issue with this is that single-use masks just aren’t designed to last. They lose significant filtration quickly and therefore provide less protection.
Luckily, these days there are some fantastic reusable masks available. Not only are these masks more environmentally friendly, but they are also cheaper in the long run. These days, many of them even provide similar or better filtration than N95, KN95 and KF94 respirators!
How Reusable Masks Reduce Waste
While reusable masks aren’t waste-free, they produce far less waste than single-use masks, especially when replaced daily. To provide a comparison, We’ve done some math below. This compares the waste from an AirPop reusable mask to that of surgical masks and N95 respirators. We’ve also included the AirPop Light SE, a semi-reusable mask, for comparison.
Each AirPop Filter can last for 40-120 hours. This comparison will assume the worst case, in that the filter needs replacing after 40 hours. However, in a real-world use case, the filters can function effectively for more extended periods.
Surgical masks are generally considered to have a lifespan of around 4 hours (9). Respirators, on the other hand, are recommended to be changed every 8 hours (10). These are the lifespans that we will be using for each device. Therefore, a single reusable AirPop filter lasts around ten times longer than a surgical mask and five times longer than a respirator.
The next factor to consider is the materials used in the discarded device. Both AirPop’s replaceable filters and the Light SE weigh around 7 grams. This weight includes the PP layer, the silicone seal, and the elastic headbands (on the Light SE). A standard N95 weighs around 9 grams (11) and contains PP, metal (often aluminium) and elastic. Finally, a standard surgical mask contains approximately 4.5 grams of PP (12), metal nose wire, and elastic bands and weighs around 4.9 grams.
Below is the expected waste (in grams) over 40 hours, assuming that each device is only worn for its intended lifespan.
AirPop filter/Light SE = 7 grams
Typical N95 = 9 grams * 5 = 45 grams
Typical surgical mask = 4.9 grams * 10 = 49 grams
Using these calculations, we can see that using the AirPop active for 40 hours results in almost seven times less waste than both a standard N95 respirator and surgical mask. This is a very significant waste reduction and shows why reusable masks are the way forward.
Another critical aspect to consider is the use of materials in the device. For example, most masks will utilise a wire nose-piece, and many of these have been found to include harmful materials such as lead. These metals can accumulate over time and cause further environmental concerns.
Finally, a factor that is often overlooked when calculating the waste of masks is the packaging. While surgical masks may be purchased in large amounts such as 100 or 500, it’s common for respirators to be purchased individually or in packs of five or 10. In the case of respirators, these are also likely to be individually wrapped for hygiene reasons.
This extra level of waste needs to be considered, especially if masks are purchased in smaller quantities. While reusable masks don’t remove packaging waste, many masks, including AirPop, use primarily cardboard packaging. While filters are contained within plastic for hygiene purposes, replacements are less frequently needed. This greatly cuts down on packaging waste.
Therefore, while reusable masks may be a greater monetary investment initially, they quickly become both more affordable and more environmentally friendly over their lifespan. Using a reusable mask is the best way that we, on an individual level, can decrease our mask waste.
Which Reusable Mask Should I Pick?
AirPop is a great reusable mask choice.
Answering this question requires a dedicated post. Luckily, we recently put together an article on factors to consider before purchasing a mask (link). So, please refer to that post for all of the considerations you should have in mind when picking a reusable or disposable mask. First, however, we will briefly touch on some of the environmental factors to consider here.
Firstly, it’s essential to consider the lifespan of each filter (in the case of a mask with replaceable filters) or the mask itself. When it comes to lowering waste, devices with replaceable filters will almost always perform better than those with built-in filters.
After examining the estimated lifespan of a mask, it’s critical to check the certifications of the device. While these certifications usually focus on filtration, breathability, and fit, some more recent certifications also test the washability of a mask and the performance after multiple wash cycles.
These standards are worth looking out for as they indicate that a mask is truly reusable. While some products are ‘reusable’, they will lose significant filtration after wash cycles. However, filtration is of utmost importance when it comes to masks - a reusable mask should maintain high filtration efficacy even after being washed.
One standard particularly worth looking out for is ASTM F3502. This certification tests face coverings using the NIOSH standards (the body that tests and certifies N95, N99, and N100 devices). Most importantly, this standard tests filtration both before and after wash cycles.
Even when considering the environmental impact of hand-washing a mask after every use, it takes only 13 uses for disposable surgical masks to become harmful for the environment in total greenhouse gas emissions (13). As such, it’s essential to check that reusable masks can maintain filtration through wash cycles.
AirPop devices have undergone wash-cycle testing under the ASTM F3502 standard. In addition, Spanish laboratory testing found that the masks retain > 98.4% filtration efficacy even after five wash cycles under the EN 14683:2019 BFE standard.
How Else Can We Reduce Our Environmental Impact?
There is no denying that reusable masks can significantly cut down on waste. The combination of filters being designed to last longer, filter media being smaller, and (in AirPop’s case) there being no metal or toxic chemicals used make reusable masks the clear winner over single-use masks when it comes to environmental impact.
While using a reusable mask could cut waste by 75% or more, it won’t totally remove plastic waste. Luckily, there are more steps that we can take to ensure that we are minimising our mask footprint as much as possible.
Mask waste is inevitable, even with reusable devices. As such, the first step to take is to check the local waste-disposal rules. In most areas, masks are considered general waste and should not be recycled. The polypropylene used in filters requires special recycling methods, and conventional facilities can not be used (8).
Since most facilities cannot currently recycle these materials, it’s essential to ensure that your masks and expired filters always make it to the trash bag. This will ensure that they are received by a facility designed to handle general waste, rather than becoming litter or going into a recycling facility that can not handle them.
On top of this, if you are using a disposable mask or are replacing your reusable mask, make sure to cut the elastic earloops off of the mask before disposing of it. These loops can then be disposed of separately, ensuring that they can never harm any wildlife.
Currently, this is about all we can do on a personal level to minimise the impacts of our waste. Of course, using a reusable mask makes the most significant impact by far. However, being aware of how to dispose of expired filters and masks will also help the environment in the long run.
On an individual level, in a world where masks are essential daily devices, it may feel like we cannot help the environment. However, simply by changing to reusable masks we can each cut waste by more than 75%!
Disposable masks do have a time and place, and it is worth keeping some on hand. Just remember to dispose of them correctly in the trash and to ‘snip the strap’. However, for most people, a reusable mask can be worn the vast majority of the time. If you are in need of a disposable mask, consider the Light SE mask which has a 40 hour lifespan with the benefits of a disposable mask.
Finally, when purchasing a reusable mask, look for one that uses replaceable filters and holds an ASTM F3502 or similar certification. This will allow you to ensure that the device performs even after long term wear and wash cycles. In turn, this will lead to less waste.
Every individual can make an impact. Reusable masks are the single best way that we can cut down on waste, and help to protect the environment. Whether you are donning a mask only due to COVID, or if you regularly wear one due to air pollution, it’s worth investing in a device that will save you money and help the environment.