A new kind of pollution

2020 has been an extremely challenging and very strange year for all of us. In the midst of a global pandemic, we’ve had to change so many things about our normal routines. Face masks have now become an essential part of our everyday lives. Every time we leave our homes and go out in public, we need to have one with us. There’s no doubt about it that they’re helping keep us safe. However, I’ve begun to notice an increasingly concerning problem. There are masks everywhere. Literally everywhere. Lying abandoned on the street, dropped in the corner of a grocery store, and piling up in trash cans. At the end of the day, disposable face masks are furthering a crisis that we’ve been facing for decades now: pollution.

What’s the problem?

Pollution is already such a prominent issue faced by our society. And now what’s being described as “Covid waste” is littering our streets and getting into our oceans. This waste includes, disposable surgical face masks, hand gloves, and bottles of hand sanitizer. All of which, are perpetuating our pollution problem across the globe. These items are being disposed of improperly and often left wherever people feel like it. As millions of people across the world are combatting COVID-19 with the use of these items, this is a cause for major concern. The careless disposal of face masks is completely unsustainable and risking the health of people and our environment.

Moreover, this unexpected consequence of COVID-19 is an environmental disaster that might last for generations. Very little oversight has been given on how to properly dispose of our masks. And as we’ve seen, the littering of masks is becoming a way too often occurrence. Back in February, around 70 masks were found littered along a beach in Hong Kong, with 30 more appearing a week later. It’s also being reported that there are more face masks than jellyfish, floating in the Mediterranean.

Unfortunately, the majority of masks are manufactured from plastic materials. This means that they can persist in our environment for hundreds of years. In the long term, animals and plants will be affected by the improper disposal of masks. Animals can get themselves tangled in the straps of our face masks. Additionally, as these masks break down they can negatively impact various ecosystems. Animals often cannot tell the difference between plastic debris and food, and end up ingesting the plastic. This is something we’ve already seen happening with other plastic pollutants. Overall, the use of these disposal face masks comes at a high cost for our environment.

A solution to the problem

Now 8 months into this pandemic, it’s time to stop buying single-use items like disposable surgical masks. Economically, it does not make sense to keep investing in these types of masks, when you can’t get much use out of them. Of course, you should always prioritize your health and safety.┬áThat being said, if you use a surgical mask, you should never discard a used mask on the side of the road, out the window of a car, or any other form of littering. Moreover, make sure to cut the straps before disposing of your mask. This prevents animals from getting tangled in the mask.

The most environmentally friendly option is to avoid purchasing disposable face masks at all. Instead, you should invest in cloth face masks that can be reused and washed after each use. The University College London has found that masks with no filters and are machine washable, have the lowest environmental impact. There are tons of options available for these types of face masks that can help keep you, others, and the environment safe. With this in mind, you should opt for reusable masks over disposable ones.

If you’re in need of reusable face masks, check out this list of where to shop for eco-friendly and organic masks!

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