Single-use masks have been the emblems of the pandemic era. Since the very first lockdowns of 2020, these plastic-based coverings have also been an environmental disaster in the making.
The need to stem the tide of the pandemic with masks was critical, but the rapid adoption of face masks also means their waste can now be found everywhere. The global population uses an estimated 129 billion face masks every month, or roughly 3 million masks per minute. Discarded masks have seeped into every corner of our lives, from city sidewalks to solemn niches of the internet. They’ve washed up on the shores of Hong Kong’s deserted Soko Islands and cloaked octopi off the coast of France.
Scientists and environmental advocates expressed alarm about this tsunami of waste from the jump. They foresaw the dire ecological ramifications of our mask waste — especially once those masks made their inevitable way into the earth’s waterways. Elastic loops pose entanglement hazards for turtles, birds, and other animals. Fish could eat the plastic-fiber ribbons that unfurl from a discarded mask’s body. Then, there is the untold menace to human health that would likely present, at the microscopic level, once masks began to disintegrate.
Now, two years into the pandemic, governments have had ample time to grapple with this serious conundrum: How do we keep people safe from a highly communicable pathogen without unleashing an environmental catastrophe? But instead of heeding the chorus of expert warnings and pouring money into biodegradable and reusable alternatives, world leaders have ignored the problem. And once the immediate public-health emergency superseded ecological concerns — the heads of Big Plastic made sure it stayed that way.
“The plastics industry saw COVID as an opportunity,” John Hocevar, the oceans campaign director at Greenpeace USA, told me from his office in Washington, D.C. “They worked hard to convince policymakers and the general public that reusables were dirty and dangerous, and that single-use plastic is necessary to keep us safe.”
Stateside, Big Plastic’s PR campaign may have hit its apex in July 2020, when the president and CEO of the Plastics Industry Association testified before Congress to argue that single-use plastic was a pandemic health necessity, stating that “plastic saves lives.”
The fear-mongering worked. The global consumption of single-use plastics has increased by up to 300% since the pandemic began, according to a 2021 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development report. The plastic industry’s canny COVID strategy also provided a plausible cover for government inertia in funding sustainable solutions to disposable masks.
For better or worse, the answer to our mounting mask-waste disaster now appears to lie in the hands of savvy entrepreneurs. “Someone is going to make a ton of money being the person to introduce truly affordable, reusable PPE,” Hocevar said. But that may not be enough to make a meaningful impact against the crisis of mask waste.
Disaster at the cellular level
The need to address the growing pile of discarded masks has only grown over the course of the pandemic. A December 2021 study reported a 9,000% rise in mask litter in the UK during the first seven months of the pandemic. And as more transmissible variants like Delta and Omicron led public-health officials to promote the use of heavy-duty disposable masks and respirators like KN95s and nonsurgical N95s — instead of the less-protective reusable cloth models that were encouraged earlier in the outbreak — it is clear that companies will be cranking out disposable masks for months to come.
As we enter our third year of COVID-19, research not only supports environmentalists’ early fears surrounding mask pollution in waterways but has introduced new concerns. Sarper Sarp, a professor of chemical engineering at Swansea University in Wales, led a contamination study that tested nine readily available single-use masks. After submerging the masks in water and letting them sit, Sarp and his team discovered both micro- and nanoplastic particles released from every single one. The leachate from those masks — that is, the particles they emitted into fluid — amounted to a sort of toxic tea.
The masks were also found to expel nanoparticles of silicon and heavy metals like lead, cadmium, copper, and even arsenic. Sarp says that he was astonished by what he and the team found after a relatively brief period of submersion, and by the quantity of particles released by each mask. The masks released hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of toxic particles — particles that can potentially disrupt entire marine food chains and contaminate drinking water.
The presence of silicon nanoparticles was of particular concern. Silicon is a common material in healthcare products, easy to sterilize and maintain. “But when it comes to nano size,” said Sarp, “it’s a whole different story.”
Microplastic particles are shed by all sorts of single-use plastics, from water bottles to grocery bags. While hardly ideal for marine ecosystems, Sarp explains that these particles can be filtered to a significant extent by our digestive systems and lungs. But nanoparticles — of plastic, silicon, or other materials — are so minute in size that they can breach cell walls and damage DNA, affecting both human and nonhuman life-forms at the cellular level. Recent research on silicon nanoparticles, in particular, has shown that if a particle is very small in nano scale, it can act almost as a tiny, carcinogenic bomb. Multiply that by a minimum of several hundred per mask, at a rate of 50,000 masks disposed per second, and the scope of the dilemma grows vivid.
“I think this is a bit of an urgent situation, as both a scientist and as an environmental expert,” Sarp said.
But due to the government’s inaction — and Big Plastic’s opportunism — the responsibility for easing this growing ecological and public-health disaster now rests on the shoulders of a few scientists and entrepreneurs.
Piecemeal market efforts
In the UK, supermarket chain Morrisons has set up mask-collection bins in partnership with ReWorked, a company that plans to make children’s furniture, shelters, planters, and recycling bins from people’s discarded masks. In Canada, a specialty plastics recycling service called TerraCycle collects and processes face masks, in addition to other traditionally nonrecyclable single-use plastic products, via subscription-only No Waste Boxes.
Another potential solution is also on the horizon: a reusable mask that offers N95-level protection. In the US, a cohort made up mostly of MIT engineering faculty have teamed up to form Teal Bio, a personal-protective-equipment startup that aims to get its reusable, N95-style respirator into healthcare workers’ hands by late spring.
“We anticipate that for a year, users can disinfect the masks after use with an alcohol wipe or standard hospital cleaner, and then swap out the filter after their shifts,” CEO Tony Casciano explains. The filters are biodegradable and composed largely of what Casciano describes as “a special wool” made from “unique sheep.”
Though Casciano would not elaborate further on the so-called special wool, potential insight may be gleaned from the New Zealand wool industry. In 2017, an enterprising Kiwi sheep breeder secured a trademark for Astino, a sheep purpose-bred for an ultrafine wool that could be woven into medical-grade filters. Teal Bio CTO, Jason Troutner, says that the “truly sustainable” nature of wool fibers is a major selling point.
Troutner and Casciano are confident that they have an adequate supply of the special-filter wool to scale to meet demand. But Casciano is firm that, for now, the company’s target market is healthcare workers. He also would not disclose the projected market price of the masks, saying only that Teal Bio’s product would deliver “significant savings on a per-user basis over the course of a year.” In other words, the product will be a somewhat niche market item, and not particularly affordable for the average consumer.
“These kinds of approaches are important,” Sarp, the Welsh scientist, said. “But they need to be considered on a bigger scale. We are producing hundreds of millions of masks every day. One company in America or in the UK is not going to be the solution for this” — especially, in the case of Teal Bio, if their market is only the.
‘Environmental health is human health’
If the extreme weather of climate change has taught us anything, it’s that human well-being relies a whole lot on a degree of ecological harmony. As Hocevar puts it: “Environmental health is human health.”
And public health relies heavily on the public’s trust — in government leaders, and in each other. That trust is earned, in part, by proactive public investment in policies that protect everybody’s health and well-being. Such investment is also critical for mitigating the mounting impact of PPE pollution in the global water supply.
But, once again, governments have slept on the opportunity to build goodwill. It’s a familiar story in this era of climate crisis, when the interplay of corporate influence and political inaction so often leaves individuals to pick up the slack where they can.
It would be naive to presume that the COVID pandemic’s eventual transition to official endemicity will herald the end of protective-mask wearing. As Jacob Stern and Katherine J. Wu recently pointed out in The Atlantic, “endemic” isn’t synonymous with a permanent retreat of disease, and COVID’s endemicity won’t bring a return to the “normal” of pre-2020 reality. Masks are likely here to stay — at least to some extent, and perhaps longer than we’d like. Because of this, the government’s failure to act on mask waste now will have lingering repercussions for our ecosystem.
Sarp is cautiously optimistic about the feasibility of leveraging various solutions to tackle the problem — so long as elected officials take the matter seriously enough to fund them. To paraphrase the OECD plastics report, it’s time to set aside fears of contamination wrought by corporate opportunism.
“There are really promising approaches around the world,” Sarp said of mask waste. “We need to bring them together. We need to make governments understand that they have to act and then make resources available. And then we can hopefully start solving the problem before it becomes out of hand.”