Minimizing the Pollution of Masks in the Environment

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, mask usage is at an all-time high as people strive to protect themselves from the disease. This has caused an exponential boom in the mask industry as it accommodates this unprecedented increase in consumer demand.

Single-use masks is a potential source of water and marine pollution. OceansAsia estimated that 1.56 billion face masks would have polluted the oceans by the end of 2020. An additional 4,680 to 6,240 metric tonnes of masks, as plastic pollution, will end up in the ocean.This is not only hazardous to public health, since littered masks can spread disease, it also affects wildlife and ecosystems on a global scale. By exclusively wearing reusable masks, individuals can significantly reduce the impact of masks on the environment. 

The environment already faces an ongoing plastic pollution crisis, so avoiding additional pollution by using single-use masks is key. In this article, we will discuss the potential impacts, alternatives to single-use masks, and how Airllo’s membrane mask technology can help be part of the solution.  

Increased Use of Single-Use Masks

The coronavirus pandemic has caused a sharp increase in the use of single-use disposable medical face masks. UN trade body, UNCTAD estimated that the global sales of face masks was estimated to be $166 billion in 2020. In contrast, the sales of face masks was only $800 million in 2019.

China is a leading supplier of masks globally. There was a substantial increase in mask production in China for just the month of February 2020, where daily production soared from 10 million to 116 million by the end of the month. 

While using face masks is a necessary precaution and preventative measure for lowering the spread of the disease, many people have opted the use of disposable single-use medical masks. These masks are made from polymeric materials, such as polypropylene, polyurethane, polyacrylonitrile, polystyrene, polycarbonate, polyethylene, or polyester, which are also commonly used to produce plastics.  

Disposable masks have a polymeric structure, meaning they consist of smaller structures. In this case, the masks consist of three layers; an inner layer made from soft fibers, a middle layer with a melt-blown filter, and an outer layer of non-woven water-resistant fibers.

Environmental Impacts of Single-Use Masks 

According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, commonly known as the EPA, plastics pose both a physical and chemical threat to the environment, especially pertaining to the health of wild-life and their habitats. Not only will animals sometimes mistaken masks as food since a significant number of disposable plastic masks are littered throughout the environment. The open burning of these masks also releases toxins into the atmosphere which impacts human health.  

This toxicity is derived from the plastics in the masks, which are chemically composed of polymers that are harmful to the environment. The EPA further states: 

“Persistent, bioaccumulative, and toxic (PBTs) chemicals or substances pose a risk to the marine environment because they resist degradation, persisting for years or even decades. PBTs are toxic to humans and marine organisms and have been shown to accumulate at various trophic levels through the food chain.”  

Disposable medical masks have the potential to break down into harmful materials when left to degrade in the wild. Therefore, improper disposal of masks has a direct negative impact on the environment. Sadly, there has been an increased accumulation of disposable masks in the environment due to COVID-19.

Incorrect Disposal of Masks 

Since the increase in mask usage began at the beginning of the pandemic, there has also been a rise in environmental threats from plastics and the improper disposal of masks. WHO estimates, approximately 89 million medical masks were needed to respond to COVID-19 each month, worldwide. Thus, billions of masks have already ended up in the oceans because of improper disposal.  As the pandemic rages on, these masks initially used to protect human beings will end up being littered in the ecosystem.

This has exacerbated the pre-existing threat posed by litter, which is still a problematic environmental issue in need of resolution. The primary risk these masks pose is physical. When consumed, animals can choke or suffocate, which can be fatal. Additionally, most animals are incapable of digesting plastics, thus the slow accumulation of plastics in their bodies will slowly kill them.

Smaller animals could also get caught in masks, similarly to how they get stuck in plastic six-pack rings. This would significantly impede the animal’s mobility and lead to serious injury as they attempt to free themselves. 

Additionally, the improper disposal of masks by coronavirus patients poses a major risk of contamination and spread of disease. This can be particularly impactful in situations where contaminated masks come into contact with water sources.  

Pollution in Water Sources and Oceans 

Water is particularly vulnerable to pollution, as it is technically a solvent that can dissolve all kinds of substances. Because of this, trash and debris that ends up in a water source or body of water may have a much more severe impact than it would on land.  

It is important to create awareness of how to land pollution can become water and marine pollution. Litter and debris can easily find their way into sources of water when improperly disposed of. According to the National Ocean Service, 80 percent of the pollution seen in marine environments originated from land. 

Masks littered along beaches and piers are likely to end up in the ocean. According to the New York Times. Beach clean-up efforts have increasingly found ill-disposed face masks as part of the litter removed from the shores. 

Alternatives to Single-Use Masks 

Since masks are a common necessity in a pandemic, there has been a growing need for reusable masks. New development of effective and reusable masks is being done to replace non-reusable masks.

There are two main types of masks seen being used besides the single-use medical masks – cloth masks and reusable mask outers with single-use filters. Both types can be washed and used for an extended time if they are properly cared for. 

Cloth Masks 

Photo by Vera Davidova

As the name suggests, cloth masks are constructed from cloth material often layered together to provide better filtration. According to Hartford Healthcare

“The best homemade cloth masks achieved better filtration (79 percent) than surgical masks (62 percent to 65 percent) in a peer-reviewed study at the Wake Forest Institute of Regenerative Medicine published in April.” 

It is important to note that these cloths referred to in the study were made of a heavyweight quilter’s cotton with a thread count of 180 or more. Cloth masks are generally regarded as being effective at preventing the wearer from contracting coronavirus if they are made of the right material. It has been proven that when certain common fabrics are used, layering and thread count plays an essential role. According to the same study previously mentioned:

“…two layers offered far less protection than four layers. A 600-thread count pillowcase captured just 22 percent of particles when doubled, but four layers captured nearly 60 percent. A thick woolen yarn scarf filtered 21 percent of particles in two layers and 48.8 percent in four layers. A 100 percent cotton bandanna did the worst, capturing only 18.2 percent when doubled and just 19.5 percent in four layers.”

This demonstrates that the masks made from common, everyday materials may be ineffective and hazardous to the user's health.

Filter Masks 

Washable face masks with a filter pocket can be made from various materials and fabrics, but all include a non-reusable filter between the layers of fabric. Different filters are effective at filtering particles of different sizes but must be replaced after every use. Therefore, these masks are not truly reusable.

Some filtered masks can be easily washed while others cannot. Washing is essential for the reusability of a mask to remove any existing virus from the surface of the mask. 

Airllo’s Reusable Masks 

Here at Airllo, we value sustainability. Our masks are better for the environment thanks to our washable membrane design. The thin, porous membrane in our masks functions as a filter. The nature of the ePTFE material is one of the many reasons they last longer than single-use masks. One Airllo is equivalent to approximately 16 – 25 single-use masks, and they are reusable for up to 100 hours. Comparatively, most single-use masks are only usable for 4 – 8 hours before having to be disposed of. 

The membrane used in our mask is resistant to solvents and easily washed with soap and water, allowing the user to wear the mask for longer periods. The mask maintains high efficiency in filtering particles from entering through the mask  and can withstand being washed with soap and disinfected with 70 percent alcohol. 

Additionally, the membrane filter used is ultra-lightweight and is able to filter particles with a mean particle size of 2.9 μm. Comparatively, a respiratory particle measures >5–10 μm in diameter which an Airllo mask will be effective in filtering out. 

Choosing the Best Mask for You - and the Environment 

While wearing a mask is crucial during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, so is being aware of the potential impact of single-use products such as disposable masks. Mishandling of plastics and trash is already an ongoing issue, and preventing masks from becoming a part of that problem is key to managing the plastic pollution crisis. 

Airllo values sustainability by minimizing the environmental impact of mask usage, which is why our masks are designed to be washable and reusable for an extended period of time.