COVID-19 Disposal Face Masks: Life is Plastic, but not Fantastic!
The outbreak of COVD-19 has brought about deep, global transformations within the environment and in the ways we now live. While the environment has enjoyed some benefits such as improved air quality (Dharmaraj et al., 2021), the pandemic also arrived with its fair share of damage.
In particular, the pandemic has sharply increased medical waste and plastic-related waste pollution, posing threats to the environment and marine ecosystems (Dharmaraj et al., 2021; Sangkham, 2020).
I didn’t notice or wonder about the environmental impacts of disposable face masks until a week ago. Since the pandemic, I have been an avid disposable face mask (DFM) user. My main justifications were: (a) Lazy to wash, (b) Disposable ones feel more sanitary and (c) More convenient.
But over time, my heart started to sting every time I disposed of a mask upon reaching home, and it didn’t help that I started noticing more and more DFMs littered on the streets. It made me speculate: Is this sustainable and am I hurting the Earth?
So, I decided to look into the environmental impacts of DFM. It’s not the best-researched article, but I hope it at least provides a brief overview.
Please feel free to navigate through the post with the following links:
About DFM: Function, Composition and Materials
Why is DFM a threat to the Environment?
About DFM: Function, Composition and Materials
DFM functions to protect us from aerial contaminants such as pathogens and chemical fumes (Morgana et al., 2021). It is constructed out of polymeric materials (ie. polypropylene, polyurethane, polyacrylonitrile, polystyrene, polycarbonate, polyethylene, or polyester) (Potluri & Needham, 2005).
Like humans, masks have different layers of body.
A DFM consists of three layers:
An inner layer made of soft fibers; functions to trap our droplets.
A middle filter layer made through the fabrication of micro- and nano fibers; helps to block pathogen-containing droplets from either direction.
An external layer made of nonwoven fibers; to repel external fluids (Dutton, 2009; Morgana et al., 2021).
DFM Production Trajectory
The rapid transmission of COVID cases has enormously inflated DFM production (Sangkham, 2020). It is estimated that for every month, 129 billion face masks are used and 89 million medical masks are required (WHO, 2020; Zhang et al., 2021).
Between 2019 and 2020, the DFM market has experienced an approximate increase from $800m to $166bn (Zhang et al., 2021). Globally, the estimated demand for surgical masks, examination gloves and protective screens are 89, 76 and 2 million per month respectively (WHO, 2020).
In China, the daily production of medical masks has increased to 14.8 million as of February 2020, while over 600 million orders of face masks per month have been secured in Japan since April 2020 (Fadare & Okoffo, 2020).
With the unyielding transmission of COVID cases (3.84 million infections and 260,000 deaths as of May 2020), the demand can be expected to continue on its upward trajectory (Fadare & Okoffo, 2020).
Why is DFM a threat to the Environment?
1. Non-Biodegradable Waste
Face masks are reported to pollute both the land and aquatic medium. They litter city streets, sewage channels, shorelines and afloat the ocean before reaching the bottom (Ardusso et al., 2021; De-la-Torre et al., 2021, Fadare & Okoffo, 2020; Okuku et al., 2021; Wang et al., 2021). An estimated 75% of COVID-related plastic waste will end up in landfills or oceans with continued disposal of such patterns (UNCTAD, 2020). In fact, countries like Hong Kong and Nigeria have already observed DFM in their oceans, highways and drainage systems (Fadare & Okoffo, 2020).
This waste is concerning since the polymeric materials of a single mask can take tens to hundreds years to fully decompose, depending on local hydrodynamic conditions (Chamas et al., 2020; Zhang et al., 2021). Often, masks are constructed with petroleum-based non-renewable polymers that are non-biodegradable and thus hazardous to the health of the environment and humankind. The overproduction, universal and mandatory use of DFM is posing challenges to plastic waste management, even more so for developing countries (Chowdhury et al., 2021; Cordova et al., 2021; Torres & De-la-Torre, 2021).
2. Plastic Pollution (Microplastics release)
Polymeric materials of DFM have been identified as a significant source of plastic pollution (Fadare & Okoffo, 2020), and the universal use of DFM is likely to increase this environmental burden (Morgana et al., 2021). Despite entering terrestrial and aquatic environments as solid macroplastic waste, DFM degrades into microplastics (plastic particles under 5mm).
Colossal amounts of DFM’s nano and microplastics are released in water, especially after interactions with shear and mechanical stresses (Chen et al., 2021; Ma et al., 2021; Morgana et al., 2021).
How does DFM release its plastics into the environment, and what affects its release?
There are three main factors in play:
Physical abrasion, and
Weathering refers to the changes in color or form of something over time, due to the effects of sun, wind, or other weather conditions (Cambridge Dictionary, 2020).
For plastic, weathering usually occurs through photo-oxidation under solar UV radiation (Prata et al., 2021). Through this process, a dramatic alteration to DFM’s physicochemical features can allow the latter to potentially release about 1.5 million particles (Wang et al., 2021).
Artificial weathering experiments vis-a-vis DFM further share that after 180 hours of UV-light irradiation and vigorous stirring in artificial seawater, up to 173,000 fibers per day may be released by a single DFM. The same morphological and chemical degradation were observed in real-life surgical masks collected along Italian beaches, confirming the odds and risks of microfiber release into the marine environment (Saliu et al., 2021).
2.2 Physical Abrasion
Physical abrasion between DFM and other materials can further amplify the mask’s release of microplastic particles (Chen et al., 2021). Precipitation, surface runoff, water, currents upon the seafloor and the transport through water systems are reported as some of the main routes of plastic transfer and mechanical deterioration (Duan et al., 2021; Kane et al., 2020, Zhang et al., 2021).
Sand and Rocks
It appears that not only are shorelines the main receivers of discarded masks, they are also a major catalyst and host to increasing DFM’s microplastic release (Wang et al., 2021). Mechanical deterioration of textile occurs as mechanical forces (eg. wind, waves and tides) collide DFM with rocks and sands (Morgana et al., 2021).
DFM can potentially release more than 16 million particles in the presence of sand (as opposed to 1.5 million without!) (Chamas et al., 2020; Zhang et al., 2021).
Water systems and Road surfaces
Frictional stresses between DFM and road surfaces can cause micro-cutting of DFM fabric (Zhang et al., 2021). That, along with the forces of wastewater treatment plants and engineered water systems, are consistent sources of microplastic release (Enfrin et al., 2019, Jiang et al., 2020).
The release of microplastics from used masks is dramatically different from new ones. During use, DFM may collect airborne microplastics and generate abrasion, all of which will age the mask and enhance its release of microplastics (Chen et al., 2021). Unlike new masks which hold a microplastic release capacity of 183.00 ± 78.42 particles/piece, a used mask holds a significantly larger capacity of 1246.62 ± 403.50. When ineffectively disposed of, DFM presents itself as a potential critical source of microplastics in the environment (Chen et al., 2021).
3. Threats to ecosystem and humankind
3.1 Aquatic Ecosystem
The number of masks to reach the oceans every month is estimated at more than 10 million (Adyel, 2020). Following this estimate, approximately 1011 microfibers and 1018 micro/nanoplastics will enter the aquatic ecosystem everyday. Even at a low level of fabric deterioration, a single mask may release thousands of microplastic fibers and up to 108 submicrometric particles (Morgana et al., 2021).
The release will aggravate marine pollution and damage the ecological system by acting as vectors to other contaminants and microorganisms (Prata et al., 2021). As microplastics enter food chains, they also compromise the health of living organisms that are existing on different trophic levels (Wang et al., 2021).
The slow degradation of plastic waste into particles of nano-sized domain makes it easier to be ingested, accumulated and transferred by organisms along the food chain (Frias & Nash, 2019; Kwak & An, 2021; Jiang et al., 2020; Morgana et al., 2021). The adsorption of nano and microplastics onto diatom surfaces makes ingestion further more accessible to these marine organisms (Ma et al., 2021).
Adverse and hurtful effects follow the ingestion of these particles (Zhang et al., 2021). These include, but are not limited to: entanglement, suffocation, oxidative stress, reproductive failure, exposure to plastic-associated chemical and microbial agents with a prominent toxic and pathogenic potential (Fadare & Okoffo, 2020; Sathicq et al., 2021; Vethaak & Leslie, 2016; Zhang et al., 2021; Zhang & Xu, 2020, ).
The damage to aquatic lives significantly affects humans for the ocean accounts for an extensive part of our food web. The infiltration of plastic particles into human foods disrupts the global food chain and risks global food safety (Fadare & Okoffo, 2020; Morgana et al., 2021; Zhang et al., 2021).
Evidence of DFM microfibers associated with chemical contaminants have also surfaced, putting out concerns for the masks’ potential inhalation and ingestion risks (Li et al., 2021; Sullivan et al., 2021). Indeed, studies have suggested the potential inhalation of microplastics and fibers, with one even presenting a detection of microplastics in the wearers’ nasal mucus (Ma et al., 2021; Prata et al., 2021).
Additionally, plastic pollution diminishes Nature’s aesthetic and recreational worth which can be paramount to human social and mental stability (Fadare & Okoffo, 2020).
4. Climate Change
The existence of plastics in the environment contributes extensively to the emission of carbon and greenhouse gases, from production to landfilling and littering (Fadare & Okoffo, 2020; Prata et al., 2021). For one functional unit of thirty one 12H days for a single person, the use of a DFM contributes 0.580kg CO2-eq to climate change and generates 0.004kg of waste (Lee et al., 2021).
Did You Know?
Plastic particles are known to propagate microbes such as invasive pathogens, so DFM may possibly act as a medium for disease outbreaks (Fadare & Okoffo, 2020)!
Reusable Face Mask (RFM)
Does the use of DFM spell doom for our planet? While I’m clueless as to the sustainability of such a practice, it is heartbreaking to read about the effects of DFM on the ocean and climate. In fact, I find myself feeling quite distressed seeing DFM now (especially the plastic-wrapped individual ones)! (ू˃̣̣̣̣̣̣o˂̣̣̣̣̣̣ ू)⁼³₌₃
My first reaction was to switch to wearing RFM, under the impression that it is more environmental-friendly.
I’m not sure how much of an environmental difference RFM usage makes, and how its protective competency stands against DFM, so I decided to do a bit of research on this.
The following will briefly compare:
A. Emission of waste
B. Efficiency/ Level of protection
A. Emission of Waste
RFM has a lower emission of at least 30% in terms of the generated waste.
As mentioned above, the use of a DFM contributes 0.580kg CO2-eq to climate change and generates 0.004kg of waste per functional unit. On the other hand, RFM contributes 0.338kg CO2-eq to climate change and generates 0.0004 kg of waste (Lee et al., 2021).
B. Level of Protection
Taking respirator (highest protection) out of the equation, it appears that surgical DFM consistently provides better protection as opposed to RFM (Prata et al., 2021).
While RFM’s protection level varies within product categories, a well-constructed quality RFM can provide protection comparable to DFM and respirators. However, its life cycle is estimated to range between twenty five to fifty washes, after which its protection efficiency will diminish (Shruti et al., 2020).
Choosing the Right RFM
Threads per inch
Generally, textiles with more than 300 threads per inch (TPI) yield better protection with more than 80% filtration efficiencies. It is recommended to use a RFM with at least 100 TPI in at least two layers. The best combination that produces more than 90% efficiency combines a layer of 600 TPI cotton or flannel with two layers of silk and chiffon. Its physical and electrostatic filtering makes it comparable to N95 respirators (Clase et al., 2020; Prata et al., 2021).
Cotton appears to be the optimal material for RFM. By capturing more particles from the humidity released throughbreathing, 100% cotton fabrics can increase filtration efficiency by 63% (Prata et al., 2021).
Does RFM have environmental impacts?
Like its disposable counterpart, RFM doesn’t come without environmental burdens. Assuming RFM undergoes similar effects as clothes during washing, natural and synthetic fibers are expected to be emitted, discharged into water systems and eventually travelled into the environment and human food chain (Henry et al., 2019; O'Brien et al., 2020; Yang et al., 2019).
How much microfibers are released during washing? While this varies across material type, it is estimated that a range between 124 and 308 mg will be released for every kilogram of fabric washed (De Falco et al., 2019). Additionally, RFM may contribute to accumulated waste as it eventually becomes disposed of (Shruti et al., 2020).
Proper mask disposal
It is important to note that apart from microplastics, the macro-scale contaminants of masks can also hurt wildlife (Prata et al., 2021). Birds have been spotted to have their feet caught in DFM’s elastic straps, and a penguin has been reported to pass after ingestion of DFM (BBC, 2020; Gallo Neto et al., 2021).
Every used mask should be properly disposed of to avoid it becoming an environmental hazard and source of infection. Used masks should be folded inwards into half three times, before being wrapped with the ear loops (Ong, 2020). Masks should be discarded in a covered manner, be it wrapped in a tissue or in a container (Khan & Afshari, 2020; Ong, 2020).
It is not unlikely that DFM may soon join its plastic counterparts (eg. drinking bottles, food containers) in the aggravation of microplastic pollution (Aragaw, 2020). Its release of microplastics is already presenting quite pronounced damages to our environment.
While the choice of DFM and RFM remains personal, their respective protection efficiencies and environmental impacts should be accounted for. To maximise each mask’s protection efficiency and minimize their environmental impacts, they should be properly used and disposed of. Ensure that the mask seals your face, and do not reuse any DFM!
Thank You for reading.
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