Due to COVID-19, people’s lifestyles have drastically changed. Many now work from home, fewer vehicles occupy roads daily, and the idea of shopping or eating out has been favoured less. Seeing those changes, one might argue that our world has benefitted from this pandemic from an environmental standpoint.
However, there is a downside to all of this. We cannot ignore the accumulation of waste from one item that’s perfectly emblematic of the new decade: the single-use face mask. Indeed, single-use face masks and disposable masks are acceptable forms of face-covering to minimise viral transmission, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the U.S. The CDC recommends these for double-masking when one finds themselves in high-risk settings. Unfortunately, these masks can be viewed as a double-edged sword when we look at the bigger picture, given our continual neglect of proper waste management.
Consider the fact that since the start of this pandemic, there have been an estimated 129 billion face masks and 65 billion gloves used globally every month, as revealed in the journal Environmental Science and Technology by the American Chemical Society. Given that humungous number, one can imagine how much of that material goes into bins by the day, by the hour and minute – and how much doesn’t. Or how much escapes the bins.
Single-use face masks, as well as gloves, are not always disposed of properly. When these masks are dropped on the sidewalk or chucked away in an outdoor rubbish bin with no lid, they can be blown away by winds and sooner or later, find their way into the sea. OceansAsia director Teale Phelps Bondaroff notes that single-use face masks, whether they are medical-grade surgical masks or the disposable kind available to the general public, pose a significant risk due to their main material, polypropylene plastic. Bondaroff mentions it can take as long as 450 years (yes, 45 decades) in total for that plastic to biodegrade.
Combining the durability of that material with instances where it ends up at sea, you get a recipe for disaster. The polypropylene plastic from masks and gloves naturally breaks into small pieces and, according to Environmental Advances, one single-use face mask can release as many as 173,000 microfibres every day. In case one might question the probability of masks entering the ocean, note that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) estimates about 80% of marine environmental pollution comes from land.
All microfibres released by just a single face mask mean that, altogether, waste resulting from the pandemic has caused the release of anywhere from hundreds of thousands to millions of microplastics. Microplastics are plastic pieces measuring under 5 millimetres, according to the NOAA. And unfortunately, these only compound the estimated 8 million tonnes of plastic that enters our waters year after year.
Where do these microplastics eventually go? They find themselves becoming part of marine food chains, absorbed by fish and other sea creatures that humans consume. If marine animals don’t mistake these toxic particles for food or ingest them, it’s possible for them to die due to becoming tangled in the strings of face masks that have remained intact. Furthermore, many microplastics are tiny enough to pass through filters in our dams and reservoirs, which means they can certainly exist in water bottles from the supermarket or the water we drink from the tap.
In dealing with this environmental issue, the proverbial saying“prevention is better than cure” applies. We can all do our part by making a conscious effort to discard single-use face masks – as well as gloves and plastic waste – only in rubbish bins with lids. When we take our garbage bags for collection, it’s also important to properly tie them up so that nothing can fall off while they are transported.
As an added precautionary measure, it is recommended to cut off the straps of the ear loops on your face masks before chucking them away. This can help prevent sea animals from being tangled in those loops and succumbing to suffocation. Moreover, this decreases the chance of these masks getting stuck on plants and trees, which helps protect other animals on land.
Going green is something we all want to make an effort to do, and it is definitely doable for mask-wearing. A reusable face mask is without a doubt more environmentally friendly, but is it always equally effective? Not necessarily, and someresearch needs to be done on your side.
At AusAir, we offer a range of reusable face masks which are compatible with our range of replacement filters. Each filter lasts up to 28 days, have been independently certified by Nelson Labs. Our masks are capable of filtering over 99% of viral or bacterial particles, dust, pollen and air pollution. We have also designed them to offer superior comfort and fit so they can be worn all day.
This last action applies to single-use face masks, gloves and all plastic items in general. We need to raise awareness and engage in serious conversations about producing, using and encouraging alternatives to plastic-based materials. As a reference, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) has been vocal in urging government leaders to promote easily recyclable alternatives to plastic – biodegradable and non-toxic options – such as natural jute, fibre, rice husk and natural rubber.
Promoting these plastic substitutes actually comes with a dual benefit. For one, this enables us to reduce plastic waste and minimise the risk of plastic entering the sea. And secondly, as developing countries are known to be key suppliers of many of these alternatives, there are opportunities to create new jobs. One can look at countries like Thailand and Côte d’Ivoire which lead the world in natural rubber exports, whereas Bangladesh accounts for the majority of jute exports.
At AusAir, we recognise the important societal role we play. We produce and sell tens of thousands of masks and filters each year. Therefore, every decision we make has the ability to make a big impact. Our product road map focuses on creating products, designed using sustainable materials, which are low-impact and eliminate plastic or sustainably upcycle it.
We were founded on the simple belief that everyone deserves to breathe safe air. We want to be the best in the world, whilst being the best for the world, and that is why we are committing to a sustainable future as a company. There’s a long way to go and quite a journey ahead, but we refuse to be complicit in the destruction of our planet. We are here to take a stand.
AusAir is in a position of power where we can afford to prioritise investment into innovation and technology that enhances eco-friendly practices. Hence, from our standpoint, there is no reason to think we’re all limited in our capacity to save the ocean – and the global environment – from irreversible damage.
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