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The Hidden Impacts Of Disposable Masks

Jan. 13, 2021 | 7 mins | Idris T.

With the rise of COVID-19, single-use masks have become increasingly popular and the fight against plastic pollution is taking a big hit across the globe.

In fact, research shows that up to 1.56 billion masks used in 2020 have entered our oceans after being disposed of and will remain in the ocean for 450 years or more until they break into smaller pieces. This further intensifies the growing issue of plastic pollution in the oceans along with its effect on wildlife.

What happens to a single-use mask when it is disposed of?

Once a mask is thrown away, some parts of the mask very slowly start to decompose in the water, leaving behind potentially harmful substances in our oceans. 

First, the parts of the mask composed of cotton and other cloth-like materials start to break down, leaving behind pieces of plastic and other non-biodegradable compositions. Over time, these plastics break down due to UV light from the sun and form microplastics in the ocean which cannot further decompose. 

This results in various species of marine life-consuming microplastics, from the plankton which forms the basis of the marine food chain to humans.

Single Use Plastic Masks in Ocean

How to dispose of masks correctly?

It is important to address a common myth about single-use masks. Given that disposable masks are mostly made of fabric-like material, people assume that such materials will easily recycle or decompose. However, this is not the case as they are made from materials such as polypropylene and polyester none of which are considered recyclable and eco-friendly. Even if accidentally recycled, the masks can get caught in the recycling machinery. This slows down the process and has to then be separated by the sanitation workers who end up touching it, potentially risking their own safety.

Most cities in Canada are asking people to dispose of masks and other Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) items like they would dispose of household hazardous waste because of the importance of safety for the sanitation workers.

How can we handle this issue?

Now with the problem at hand, what can be done to reduce the number of disposable masks entering the ocean while still abiding by the current safety protocols? 

Well, the best way to do so is by using reusable cloth masks instead of single-use masks. It is a good idea to limit our usage of single-use masks and choose reusable cloth masks to protect ourselves and the people around us. Reusable cloth masks are just as effective when it comes to stopping the spread of COVID-19 in non-medical settings. The Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) recommends that Non-Medical Masks such as cloth masks or coverings should be made of at least three layers, with the middle layer being a filter-type fabric. This aligns with guidance issued by the World Health Organization.

Also importantly, by choosing a reusable mask made by a small business we can contribute to the local economy.

So now it is up to us to change our behaviours and think about how we can reduce our plastic footprint and make our world greener and cleaner.

Reusable Mask