An Ocean of Plastic Pollution: How Bad Is Mask Pollution?

The world's reliance on single-use plastic is toxic to the planet, especially during times where masks have become a necessity. Airllo wanted to be a part of the solution to plastic pollution. Airllo's proprietary technology can protect society from the spread of disease and the reusability of the masks will take some burden off the environment.

Plastic is a by-product of the petroleum industry, a significant driver of climate change. Over the decades, companies have developed cheap products that are convenient, accessible, and easily forgotten. This helps create a long-lasting, dependent relationship with plastics. Every year, 40% of plastics are made into single-use plastics. 

Buy, use, throw, and forget. This linear model of consumption has created an insatiable thirst for plastics because the end-of-life is rarely our responsibility. Our waste management infrastructure has made it extremely easy to make trash “disappear.”  Nearly 32% of plastic packaging ends up in natural systems, such as the ocean. 

Plastic waste is a problem that the United States exports to developing countries. These countries are not properly equipped to handle this large amount of waste. Thus, the waste ends up in the oceans. Unfortunately, the cost of environmental damages caused by plastic litter will fall on society as an externality, a cost you nor I signed up for. 

A concerning issue is that animals ingest plastic particles. In a scientific review article, the author cited several studies where researchers have found plastic particles in the stomachs of birds, sea turtles, fish, etc. The accumulation of plastic in the stomach of these animals can cause the animal to starve from a lack of proper food and nutrients. 

Microplastics, plastics that are smaller than 5 nanometers, can bioaccumulate in the food chain. Predators of these animals, such as humans, will accumulate even higher amounts of microplastics by consuming them.

It is predicted by 2050, that we will have more plastic than fish in the oceans by weight. According to a report from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a garbage truck of waste is dumped into the ocean every minute. Our reliance on this material is creating a plastic ocean.

Plastic waste does not disappear, it is not biodegradable. Wind, sun, and waves break down the plastic into smaller, microscopic pieces that could be nanometers in size. Plastics last for an extremely long time, over several lifetimes. 

By the time your great-grandchildren are born, the plastic that you’ve once held in your hand is still persistent somewhere in this world. It could be buried deep in the landfill, where potential toxins can leach into drinking water. It could be in the oceans, slowly passing through the food chain, and into our meals. It could be in the topsoil of our farmland, where we plant our crops.

Mask found on the beach. Photo by Brian Yurasits on Unsplash

The pandemic has exacerbated this situation. In 2020, beachgoers will see an uncommon occurrence. The presence of personal protective equipment littered on the beaches and in the ocean. In just 6-8 weeks of the start of the pandemic, Hong Kong has seen a constant influx of masks found on the Soko Islands. The widespread use of masks and gloves by non-medical personnel has increased the amount of trash that is inaccurately disposed. Sadly, the COVID-19 pandemic has worsened the marine plastic problem. The good news is, there are effective and reusable masks to reduce the burden on the environment.

One Airllo mask could be used for 100 hours, which is equivalent to 16-25 electrostatic surgical masks. An electrostatic surgical mask relies on the charges between the fibers of the fabric’s material to filter out small particles. Like a battery, the charge runs out and the mask is deemed ineffective.

Airllo’s ePTFE membrane stays effective in filtering out particles even after disinfection by 70% ethanol or washing with soap. If 100 people use an Airllo for a week, we can prevent around 600 masks from ending up in landfills or in the oceans.

The whole world is focused on stopping the pandemic. Reasonably so, as it is affecting every aspect of our lives. Environmental issues are once again placed on the back-burner. One important action everyone could do today is to properly dispose of single-use plastic so it does not end up in the ocean. 

Of course, the better option is to opt-out of single-use plastics. The good news is that we have reusable alternatives to single-use plastics that could be easily adopted into our lives. We must not forget the importance of protecting the environment for our future generations. Every little gesture for the environment counts, the Earth will thank you!