Can we make COVID face masks eco-friendly?


Ponder over the fact that China is now producing more than 120 million face masks per day. They are so far the number one producer and exporter of face masks. On top of that, virtually every country has several small-scale mask producers. This is to take care of the entire world’s population which now stands at 7.5 billion – of course excluding infants who can’t put on masks.

But the problem is how these masks are disposed of. The environment is already hurting from the billions of face masks discarded daily as trash. Remember, the trend for Covid-free people is wearing a new mask with the dawn of every single day. For medical workers and Covid patients, the number of face masks per day can go up to 10. As such, the influx of facemasks into the environment is advancing at a threatening speed.

Experts estimate that about 75% of all facemasks worn during the pandemic will end up in the marine ecosystem.  This is no surprise bearing in mind the dispersible nature of the masks. Most are lightweight and therefore can easily be carried by wind and water. Even if rightly dumped in garbage heaps, forces of nature will see to it that their final destination is the ocean. Those used for landfills can stay put for long until they fully decompose.  

As it wouldn’t be advisable at this point to stop wearing Covid facemasks because of the environment, the best alternative is to make them more eco-friendly. 

But first,

Why is it challenging to recycle facemasks?

First and foremost, you hardly hear of facemask recycling programs. The entire world has barely a handful of companies that deal with facemask recycling. Perhaps it is high time such programs are initiated.  

Probably your argument is that developed countries with established recycling infrastructure should not have a problem adding facemasks to their list of recyclable items. Such infrastructure is specially designed to sort specific types of wastes. Mechanical machines used to separate plastics from paper may not work with facemasks. Therefore, in most cases, facemask recycling infrastructure has to be built from scratch. 

Another challenge is the collection of facemasks. To make a facemask recycling program feasible, you need to collect millions of facemasks so as to later produce the millions required. This is difficult considering that the trashed facemasks are intricately mixed with other garbage like food scraps and dirt. Those littering the streets are scattered everywhere and likewise mixed with other trash. It would necessitate a recycling company to pick one at a time – meaning a lot of cash will be spent on paying laborers and fuelling vehicles.  In the end, the recycling company will most likely incur a big loss.

Are there eco-friendly alternatives to the current disposable facemasks?

An eco-friendly facemask would have the following basic characteristics:

  • Ability to break down when subjected to environmental agents
  • Ability to be worn several times – or rather as long as possible.

Understand that surgical facemasks are made of a layer of fabric and another layer of non-woven fabrics produced from plastics like propylene. This is what shields viruses from penetrating the nose and mouth of the users. Surgical masks are further graded into levels, differentiated by the thickness of the materials. When disposed of, the plastic components will last in the environment for close to 500 years before fully decomposing. That is the big problem.

Plastic face shields are even worse given their size and plastic composition.

The best alternative is to wear reusable facemasks that have no filter. This implies they have no plastic component in them. The fabric should preferably be fully biodegradable. Raw materials such as hemp, bamboo, sugar cane, cotton, silk, wool, and cashmere should be used as they easily break down in the environment. 

Non-biodegradable fabrics to avoid include polyester, spandex, and nylon. These take up to 200 years to fully decompose. 

Taking all into account

Experts advise that you don’t necessarily need a surgical mask so as to stay protected from coronavirus. Leave that to the doctors and medical workers who operate in highly delicate environments.

A reusable cloth mask is equally good in the fight against Covid-19. You can even make one yourself at home, tailor it to whatever design you fancy so that you can keep it for as long as possible. Only remember to wash it regularly to kill any potential SARS-CoV-2 virus on its surface. This way, you adequately protect yourself while also preventing environmental pollution.