The Environmental Impact of Disposable Masks


Even as we deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, there is another epidemic that is slowly growing at the same time. There is an incredible litter and pollution problem being created by the massive demand for disposable surgical masks. On streets, parks, and beaches across the world, masks are piling up, with an estimated 75% of plastic masks ending up in landfills and the ocean. There are no hard numbers on how many masks are going to the landfill, but we can extrapolate from what we do have, and the amount is staggering. The United Kingdom is estimating that it is sending, on average, 1.6 billion masks to the landfill every month. Expand that out to the whole population of the world, and you could be looking at a trillions of masks tossed within a month.


This is a problem that goes beyond simply taking the extra effort to put masks in trash cans. The need for surgical masks has outstripped questions about how to dispose of them due to the pressing need. The plastics that these masks are made from are far from biodegradable, often taking hundreds of years or even longer to fully decompose. Those that end up in the environment are a major hazard towards wildlife on land and at sea. However, though not fully decomposing, these masks will leach microplastics into the environment. 


Indeed, it is estimated that each plastic mask made has a carbon footprint of 31 g CO2e – which seems like a small amount until you realize that China alone is putting out millions of surgical masks every day. Your average car produces 1kg CO2e after 5 kilometres of driving – or roughly 30 masks worth of carbon generation. Unlike driving a car, however, everyone has to wear a mask and normally will be disposing at least one mask every day. 


The problem is that there is no easy solution here. Unlike many other plastic products, surgical masks are not easily recyclable, and have generally not had recycling programs planned for them. In fact, most governments are recommending that these masks not be recycled, as there is the possibility of the COVID-19 virus remaining on the discarded masks, whether they end up as litter or in the recycling. 


While the priority for masks has always been analyzing their importance in slowing the transmission of the virus, there is a growing movement to study their environmental impact. While for some individuals disposable masks are the only and best option, they are not ideal for the environment. Thankfully, these same studies have determined that the masks with the least environmental impact are reusable woven masks. With regular washing, these also happen to be the best masks for cutting down on the virus. 


By getting a reusable mask, you can not only help cut down on the spread of the virus but can help reduce the alarming growth of disposable mask litter and garbage that is being created. You can also look into ways to reduce your impact through varied washing techniques. Compare the carbon footprint of single use masks to the 0.5-3kg CO2e needed to do a single load of laundry, including a cotton mask, depending on how you dry it (letting it line dry greatly reducing the impact). If you wash the cotton mask by hand, the footprint shrinks even more.


The UNITY MASK has a 50/50 blend of poly-cotton for the exterior layer and an unbleached organic cotton layer for the interior. The minimal amount of plastic means that its carbon footprint is lower just at creation. The Mask also dries very quickly, which means it can be dried by simply leaving it out, which cuts down on the electrical usage to dry it – as mentioned, a major factor in the carbon footprint of any laundry. The raw materials and manufacturing of the mask all happens locally within Canada, never travelling more than 30 minutes by car, cutting the carbon cost of being shipped overseas – cargo ships are estimated to be responsible for 3% of all carbon output in the world, being a massive part of global commerce. 


Most importantly, the UNITY MASK can be used over and over, where surgical masks need to be constantly discarded, building up a greater and greater carbon footprint. The only section of the UNITY MASK that can wear out is the elastic, which is designed to be replaced, meaning that the mask itself can last forever – a lifetime of cutting down on environmental impact.  


Further Reading 

https://slate.com/technology/2020/10/disposable-masks-ocean-pollution-archaeology.html

https://ecochain.com/knowledge/footprint-face-masks-comparison/

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/green-living-blog/2010/nov/25/carbon-footprint-load-laundry

https://theicct.org/sites/default/files/publications/Global-shipping-GHG-emissions-2013-2015_ICCT-Report_17102017_vF.pdf

https://theecohub.ca/how-to-dispose-of-masks-and-gloves-responsibly/