As mandatory mask wear is being slowly phasing out, an ancillary crisis seems to be looming at the very same time. It is no longer a lack of supply as face masks of just about any type can now be found online, although unaware consumers may very well be purchasing and wearing masks that offer absolutely no protection. In addition to consumer concerns about scams and non-protective mask product, is the impact of disposable and poor-quality face masks that are ending up in landfills and oceans or worse, scattered carelessly along the side of the road, on sidewalks and in parking lots.
Originally intended to be a convenient and hygienic solution for medical professionals, many have taken to using disposable surgical masks on a day-to-day basis thanks to the pandemic. However, just like any single-use or plastic product, they’re taking a huge environmental toll.
The overabundance of single-use masks and the resulting waste cannot be readily biodegraded and further, fragment into microscopic plastic particles, namely micro-and nano plastics that pose long-term environmental harm. Even if they end up in a landfill rather than your local park, they’re piling up at a distressing rate with no end in sight.
Mask Waste and Pollution
Originally made from reusable materials like gauze or cotton, medical masks were replaced in the 1960s with masks made from disposable non-woven synthetic fiber materials. Since then, there has been very little innovation in mask technology and personal protective equipment (PPE), resulting in limited available and sustainable options when mask demand was at its height in March 2021. Over the last two years, the use of disposable masks has skyrocketed-- literally generating tons of waste and wreaking havoc on local ecosystems.
Disposable masks are now being produced on a similar mass scale as plastic bottles, which is estimated to be 43 billion per month. However, unlike plastic bottles, there is no way to recycle single-use masks. In fact, used or worn disposable face masks are considered risky medical waste, or healthcare risk waste, and can only guarantee maximum safety with single use—meaning that masks become plastic waste, daily.
The Demand for Sustainable Face Masks
Recent research points to a growing demand for reusable, more sustainable face masks and those designed with environmentally friendly (organic) materials to ensure a sustainable future. According to Anjan Kumar Roy, Chemicals, Materials and Nutrition Research Analyst at Frost & Sullivan, “the demand for non-disposable face masks in North America is expected to spike between 2021 and 2025.”
The quickest and easiest way to help lessen the burden of face masks on the environment is to switch from disposable masks to reusable options that deliver significant reductions in both cost and generated waste such as the OCTO Respirator Mask (ORM). The lightweight, self-contained, reusable elastomeric respirator mask delivers reliable bi-directional air filtration and respiratory protection from airborne toxins, particulates, viruses, and pollution. The ORM is easily sterilized in boiling water and can be reused again and again, or stored safely away for up to 10 years for use when needed, making the ORM a much more sustainable long-term solution. Additionally, the professional-grade ORM does not require any replacement filters and maintains a 10-year shelf life. The thoughtful approach to respirator mask design not only enhances the length of usability, but all but eliminates growing disposable face mask pollution.
Beyond selecting a reusable face mask, awareness campaigns about the value of reusable masks and those created from organic materials will help normalize their use, while availing more sustainable options for everyday protection against pollen, dust, mold spores, wildfire smoke, or other contaminants, or future public health. The most important take away is that whichever preferred mask is used, use one that actually protects, wear it properly, and if single-use, dispose with care.