Phone, keys, wallet, mask. This modified mantra has pervaded our lives since the World Health Organization characterized COVID-19 as a pandemic in March of 2020, with the United States Centers for Disease Control identifying proper face mask etiquette as a critical deterrent in the spread of the virus. However, commonly used medical-grade and N95 masks cannot be washed and their effectiveness depends on their disposability and replacement. So where do they go? Disposable masks represent a huge risk to the environment and human health, and we can reduce that risk with individual action, community leadership, and advocating for comparable successful plastic waste disposal policies at local, state, and national levels.
The United Nations estimates “around 75 percent of the used masks, as well as other pandemic-related waste, will end up in landfills, or floating in the seas.” Laurent Lombard of the French non-profit conservation group Opération Mer Propre commented “soon we’ll run the risk of having more masks than jellyfish in the Mediterranean.” Both terrestrial and marine animals can become entangled in mask straps or confuse the trash for food. Not only can these single-use masks take up to 450 years to completely decompose, but financial externalities from the pollution for tourism and fisheries are estimated to cost nearly $40 billion by the UN Environmental Program (UNEP). Besides the environmental and economic burdens, improper waste management can increase human exposure to COVID-19 or toxins released during incineration. With human lives at stake, face masks are a necessity for healthcare employees, essential workers, and the general public. But there are certainly means of mitigating the disposability, pollution, and waste management without banning masks altogether.
The United States should first and foremost manifest appropriate seriousness in regards to the pandemic, plans which are extensively outlined in the Biden Administration’s COVID-19 response and preparedness strategy. Obtaining public trust and urging compliance with safety standards will not only create safer public settings, but can then allow progress towards more sustainable practices. For example, disposable masks will often be provided for consumers in major business settings like airports and hospitals because disposable face masks are typically sold in bulk and generally cheaper than cloth masks that offer sufficient protection. However, excluding the N95 mask (which is not recommended to the public in order to have necessary supplies for extreme cases in clinical settings), properly fitting multi-layer cloth masks, including certain home-made ones, have been shown to have better filtration rates than standard surgical masks. If more members of the public cared enough to invest in and wear appropriate cloth masks, disposable handouts could be reduced significantly. Presidential, congressional, and local government vocalization and demonstration of best practices should not be underestimated.
Beyond speeches and press conferences, however, both state and congressional legislative action can also be implemented to mitigate plastic waste. A prominent local example is the use of substitutional subsidies, increased taxation, or outright bans on plastic bag usage in a variety of US cities. It stands to reason that similar policies could be created to discourage the use of disposable masks for the general public by establishing a tax or even providing cloth masks at reduced costs. Private businesses could allow potential customers (without their own masks) entry with purchase of a cloth mask, just as businesses provide reusable bags for purchase if customers forget to bring their own. When necessary, it will also be critical to invest in technologies and strategies for proper waste disposal. UNEP recommends the Sustainability Assessment of Technologies methodology (environmental technology analysis with a greater emphasis on “process and outcome” as well as “informed and participatory decision making”) to determine the best available practices for segregation of waste by source and severity as well as evaluation of human and environmental health in chosen primary disposal tactics, with the hope of sharing resources and knowledge at a national level for downward-branching implementation at state and local levels. Dedicating the appropriate resources, monetary and otherwise, into developing and producing this technology will be essential to effective implementation.
There are also plenty of steps we can take as individuals. Outside of serious clinical settings, choose to wear reusable multi-layer cloth masks (being mindful to wash daily if possible, by hand or with laundry). If using disposable masks, “snip the strips” to prevent possible entanglement for animals and place them in trash bags (they cannot be recycled and should not be dropped as litter). Inform your friends, family, and community of the benefits of cloth masks and proper disposal techniques, and write to local government officials to advocate for policy change regarding proper disposal and a shift towards more sustainable face mask usage. We can be environmentally responsible without compromising human health.
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