Disposable face masks are killing the planet and we have to change now

Masks have become an integral part of the new “normal” but what are the environmental repercussions of disposable face masks?

Face coverings are now a mandatory rule across several countries. They keep us protected amidst from COVID 19 but how environmentally friendly are they? Are they contributing to plastic waste in 2020?  The sight of a disposable face mask lying around streets leads to one question: Is plastic making its return in full force once again?

Taking a look around most pharmacy or beauty stores, the most easily available mask I could find was a single-use disposable one. These masks are meant to be worn once. As a result; users of such masks end up throwing them in the trash after one use. It is not rare to find a single-use mask lying around in the neighbourhood or even in and around parks. In the last few months, during my daily evening walks to Regents Park and Primrose Hill, I have come across at least one blue mask discarded in the open environment. So, what does this mean?

This is clearly an alarming sight to see as these single-use disposable masks are adding to the ever-increasing waste which will ultimately be thrown into the ocean. A quick look at the materials with which these masks are made from reveals that the masks contain forms of plastic such as polypropylene. This means single-use masks are becoming contributors to mounting plastic pollution, an extremely serious threat to the oceanic ecosystem.

Credit: RSPCA, rescued seagull gets entangled in a disposable face mask

These masks are not only an addition to the excess plastic problem but are also pose a threat to wildlife, specifically birds. As they are often discarded with the straps attached to them, birds and animals can easily get entangled in them. In July 2020, RSPCA released distressing pictures of a rescued seagull whose feet were entangled in a face mask in Essex. Smaller species of birds such as finches and robins were also reported to be found dead after being caught between the masks. In the same month, wildlife photographer, Steve Shipley photographed a peregrine falcon mistaking a disposable face mask as food in North Yorkshire. Other species of birds such as pigeons have been photographed hovering around the discarded masks in streets. These photos are heartbreaking as well as extremely worrying.

Most of the plastic pollution which now includes large quantities of face masks is dumped into the ocean. We do know that most animals cannot tell the difference between plastic material and food. Marine animals such as the dolphins, seals, and other species of mammals or fishes can easily mistake the masks for food and can either end up ingesting them or choking on them. The presence of plastic in the ocean affects the animals, pollutes the ecosystem, and can displace breeding grounds or migratory routes of multiple fish species. In addition to this, we also have to consider marginalised groups of people who are directly impacted by discarded masks. The mask waste and affects certain groups of people such as waste collectors who are the first to come across discarded masks and are at the highest risk of contracting the disease. This does depend upon how long the mask was left open but nevertheless, masks left out in the open can be a potential source of biohazard for the general public, waste collectors, and other individuals who can come across them.

In light of such events, I think the best option is to refrain from using disposable masks and opt for a reusable one. Buying masks that are reusable and can be washed after every use is a good place to start. Reusable masks are the most feasible option as they are not meant to be discarded away after one or few uses. They can be reused and are suitable for machine or hand washing. Keeping a few spare reusable masks on hand is helpful since the need to buy a disposable one in case of emergencies would be greatly reduced. Not only these masks last for a long time but will also ensure that we are not becoming contributors to the already mounting plastic pollution.

If someone does have a disposable mask on hand, cutting the straps of the masks before discarding them properly in a bin will ensure that birds and other animals don’t get entangled within them. In this way, we can protect the health of society and the environment at the same time.