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Throughout the past year, face masks have become one of the most prominent symbols of the coronavirus pandemic, both on our faces and, according to experts, in pollution scattered across the planet’s beaches, streets and bodies of water. OceansAsia, a nonprofit marine conservation advocacy organization, recently conducted research about how many single-use face masks are likely to have entered the world’s oceans in 2020. Overall, the organization estimates that more than 1.5 billion face masks entered oceans in 2020, resulting in an additional 4,680 to 6,240 metric tons (about 5,160 to 6,880 U.S. tons) of marine plastic pollution.
SKIP AHEAD Face mask pollution and the environment
When single-use masks are not disposed of properly, they pose an environmental risk, said Teale Phelps Bondaroff, director of research for OceansAsia. Single-use face masks — both the disposable kind the general public wears and medical-grade surgical masks — are often made with polypropylene plastic. When that plastic breaks up into smaller pieces, it can take as long as 450 years to decompose, Phelps Bondaroff said. And while reusable cloth face masks are a more eco-friendly option, disposable masks are both an acceptable face covering, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and CDC-recommended for double masking.
It’s crucial to learn how to properly discard face masks in order to ensure they don’t end up in oceans, lakes and rivers, said Erin Simon, head of plastic waste and business at the World Wildlife Fund. The goal is not to change the disposable mask space as it is a key part of medical safety protocols, Simon highlighted, noting environmental experts more specifically advocate for the proper management of disposable face masks after they’re used.
“The challenge is that now the general public is using them and not disposing of them correctly,” Simon said. “In this case, the appropriate choice is the trash or landfill.”
We talked to experts about how face mask pollution is harming the environment in the wake of the pandemic, and what we can do to help. We also rounded up a list of eco-friendly reusable face masks from brands like Rothy’s and TenTree.
Eco-friendly face masks
Experts said reusable cloth face masks are a more sustainable option than single-use disposable masks, and some companies further incorporate recycled fabric into their masks, as well as organic materials. The face masks below meet the CDC’s guidance in regards to reusable face coverings and are made with the environment in mind, according to the brands behind them.
Best eco-friendly reusable face masks
The outer layer of TenTree’s double-layered face mask is constructed from hemp and recycled polyester fabric, while the inside lining is made from organic cotton and hemp. Masks are designed with a pocket filter and come in a pack of three. The color and pattern of the washable masks vary across packs, and they come in two sizes: Small/Medium and Large/Extra Large.
United By Blue makes Large/Adult, Small/Youth and Kids face masks in packs of two, three and ten. The masks have adjustable ear loops and a filter pocket, and United By Blue also sells filters. Masks are made from a fabric blend including hemp, organic cotton, recycled polyester and Tencel, a type of rayon fabric. Masks are sold in a variety of styles, from Chambray and Coral to Cedar Rose.
Avocado face masks are made with two layers of organic cotton and are certified by the Global Organic Textiles Standard (GOTS), a textile processing standard for organic fibres. Masks feature a filter pocket and can be purchased with elastic ear loops or head tie straps. They are sold in packs of four for adults and kids, and come in styles like Sunbeam Yellow, Northern Lights and more.
Rothy’s machine-washable masks are made from the brand’s rPET thread, a material derived from single-use plastic water bottles. Masks feature elastic straps and microfiber swatches on the inside for added comfort against the face.They come in a pack of two and are available in colors like Black, Blue and Pink and more.
When you’re done using EcoMask’s reusable face mask, you can send it back to the brand and it will recycle the mask for you. EcoMask’s face coverings are constructed from post-consumer recycled materials and boast five-layers of filtration. The mask comes in sizes ranging from Extra Small to Extra Large and are available in five colors: Black, Sage, Rose, Royal Blue and Navy Blue.
Synergy Organic Clothing’s face masks are made from three layers of GOTS certified organic cotton and feature adjustable ear loops. Masks come in packs of two and are sold in kids and adult sizes. Adult masks are available with screen-printed designs like moons and stars, and some are constructed from deadstock — unsold items — so their exact colors and patterns vary.
Best eco-friendly disposable face masks
When you purchase VIDA’s disposable face mask, it will arrive with a prepaid label that allows you to send your used masks back to the brand in their original envelope — the brand recycles masks it receives. VIDA’s disposable masks feature an adjustable nose clip and come in a Floral pattern. Masks are sold in packs of 10 to 1,000, and they can be worn under one of the brand’s reusable cotton masks while double masking.
As featured in our guide to KN95 masks, VIDA sells KN95 masks that are approved under the Food and Drug Administration’s Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) for KN95 masks. They come in colors like Black, White and Olive, and after using them, you can send them back to the brand to be recycled.
Face mask pollution and the environment
The pandemic triggered an estimated global use of 129 billion face masks and 65 billion gloves every month, according to estimates in a 2020 study published in Environmental Science and Technology, a peer-reviewed scientific journal by the American Chemical Society. Simon said the study also estimated that 30 percent more waste would be produced in 2020 compared to 2019. The study states that this increase is in part due to the “increased the use of PPE by the general public” during the pandemic, and thus getting thrown out as municipal solid waste, or everyday trash or garbage. Unfortunately, not everyone disposes of single-use face masks and gloves property. Simon said she’s seen masks and gloves dropped and forgotten about and, if they’re thrown away in an outdoor garbage can without a lid, they can fall out or be blown away by wind.
Mark Benfield, a professor at Louisiana State University's department of oceanography and coastal sciences, studies plastic pollution in Louisiana and is now investigating face mask pollution. He said most waste created on land ultimately makes its way into a body of water — the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimates that “80 percent of pollution to the marine environment comes from the land.” Over dozens of years (or more, depending on the material), that waste breaks down and is absorbed into water and soil, for example.
As plastic — which partially comprises disposable face masks — degrades, it releases into the water hundreds to millions of micro plastics, pieces of plastic that are less than 5 millimeters in length, according to NOAA. Benfield, who developed a methodological survey with colleagues to collect data about PPE litter around the world, said micro plastics are especially dangerous because they’re small enough to pass through filters and end up in our drinking water, or get absorbed into the bodies of animals that humans eat, like fish. Marine animals can become tangled in disposable face masks or mistake them for food, Benfield added. Both situations
Why disposable face masks can’t be easily recycled
Simon said traditional local recycling programs tend to only sort “like with like,” meaning they group items that are made from the exact same materials — such as one type of plastic, glass or paper — and then recycle those items together. A disposable face mask, however, is made from different materials that cannot be easily separated. Phelps Bondaroff said single-use face masks usually consist of metal for the nose piece, cotton and elastic for the ear loops and melt-blown polypropylene for the main structure that covers the mouth and nose.
According to recycling company TerraCycle and experts we’ve consulted, single-use personal protective equipment like masks and gloves often don’t get recycled through local programs in towns and cities because of the associated cost. However, Phelps Bondaroff noted that companies like TerraCycle have begun to devise strategies and specified programs for recycling disposable face masks. TerraCycle offers a PPE recycling program through which you can collect items like disposable face masks and gloves in a box that’s available to purchase through the company (TerraCycle does not accept reusable face masks or PPE from healthcare facilities). When the box is full, you can send it back to TerraCycle, which then sorts materials and sends them to third-party processing partners that recycle them into usable forms. For example, Terracycle states that “The polypropylene-dominant mixture from the face mask is densified into a crumb-like raw material that’s used in plastic lumber and composite decking applications.”
How to mitigate the impacts of face mask pollution
Phelps Bondaroff said the best way to mitigate the impacts of (and help prevent) face mask pollution is disposing of them correctly and ensuring they do not enter the Earth’s ecosystem. He said it’s important to throw away face masks in garbage cans that have a lid and a garbage bag that will be tied together when it’s removed to keep them from falling out or blowing away.
Phelps Bondaroff also mentioned he’s seen posts circulating on social media from environmental and activist organizations recommending we cut the straps of face masks’ ear loops before throwing them away. He said this could help prevent animals from getting tangled in the ear loops, and decrease the chances of them getting stuck on trees and plants. But WWF's Simon noted it’s more important to spend time finding a covered, lined garbage can.
“I would argue that in that moment that you're taking to cut the ear loops of your face mask, just put it in the trash,” Simon said.