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Disposable Masks and the Environment

In what seems like the blink of an eye, global mask sales are more than 166x greater than in 2019. From hospitals to factories, from small businesses to the grocery-store, everyone has been encouraged to ‘mask-up’. With such a large increase in a disposable product, it must make us stop and consider how we can ensure that this does not have negative effects on our planet. We must ask ourselves how we can ensure the safety of others by wearing disposable face masks, while balancing the need to take care of our planet. 

The short term solution is a simple one, and the burden falls solely on the user. Cut the straps, and find a bin. By placing your disposable mask in the trash every time, you make sure that it’s not finding its way into our oceans and waterways, and the mask won’t have the chance to affect vulnerable ecosystems. Another common tactic is to place your used masks on the rearview mirror of your car. If you can’t find a bin, hang it up and dispose of it later. This strategy seems akin to the Reduce, Re-use, and Recycle mantra we learned in elementary school. 

This won’t be quite enough, though. Just as the burden of reducing carbon emissions and tackling climate change is not the sole responsibility of consumers, we need businesses to take charge and make proper investments in the disposal and recycling of mask materials. A recent study coming from the University of Petroleum and Energy Studies suggested that the polypropylene fibers used in disposable face masks could be recycled and turned into biofuel. According to the researchers, “It is an efficient and economical method of recycling polypropylene,” they argue that chemical recycling can not only prevent plastic pollution that would cause “effects to humankind and the environment,” but can also create a “clean” liquid fuel to meet increasing global energy demand.

Other efforts are underway to create re-usable PPE kits that effectively stop droplets and sprays using washable filters or sanitization methods. These efforts are taking into consideration the fight against Covid-19 and encouraging the use of effective PPE, while also tackling the worries of increased medical waste. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently published a success story that showed medical grade masks could be decontaminated and reused safely. 

These concerted efforts to balance the importance of proper PPE to stop the spread, and decreasing waste released into our environment are a positive sign. More work must be done and we all need to do our part to ensure that each and every disposable mask makes its way into the bin. First Defence will be keeping a close eye on the developments in recyclable face masks with proven efficacy in stopping droplets and sprays. Until that time, we ask for your help in cutting the straps and finding a bin. If there isn’t a bin, proudly hang disposable masks from the car mirror to proudly show they aren’t being littered on the street.

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