Johnson: Paper masks and pollution

Grace Johnson, Staff Columnist

Walking out of the grocery store on your way back to your car, you see it. A disposable mask lying trampled on the ground, browned and crinkled. You’re in too much of a rush (and too afraid of getting COVID-19) to pick it up and dispose of it properly. 

This is not an unusual phenomenon. If anything, it is an occurrence so common we may not even notice it anymore. Masks are crucial right now and their importance need not be undermined for fear of environmental safety, but there is always a cost.

We’ve all seen them, now what is going to be the effect?

While protecting us from a virus, our disposable mask becomes a sort of virus in itself, seeping millions of particles of chemicals and bacteria into natural ecosystems—which has an incredibly detrimental effect on plant and animal life. 

Pollution data suggests that we can expect some 75% of disposable mask waste to end up in the ocean and in landfills. One might ask, “why can’t they just be recycled?” Well, masks are tricky. Officially, because of the risk of infection and disease, they are considered medical waste, which prohibits them from recyclable status. As a result, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), is concerned with “uncontrolled dumping.”

Divers off the coast of France discovered a number of masks, latex gloves and bottles of hand sanitizer littering the Mediterranean Sea bed, proving the UN concerns accurate. 

Not only is this a threat to animal and plant life, which could be consuming these materials or choking as a result of them, but masks are also a threat on the micro level. Many masks contain the chemicals polypropylene, polyethylene and vinyl which have life spans longer than 450 years. 

These long-lasting polymers are proving to be deadly, as they continue to pile up without reprieve, resulting in incredible amounts of waste.

What is the solution?

Like most effective environmental saving measures, reusable masks are definitely the wisest choice. Proper and frequent sanitation is also imperative to ensure that the virus is not being constantly spread. 

In a hospital setting, however, disposable masks should still be worn in order to ensure the most consistent protection and safety, as healthcare workers are being faced with multiple, potentially contagious patients each day. 

If you are concerned about the efficacy of a cloth mask, make sure it has at least two layers of fabric and does not have large gaps around the nose, chin and cheeks. Johns Hopkins Medicine states that these cloth alternatives are just as effective as disposable masks. However, neck gaiters and bandanas are where you have an issue. 

Beyond the efficacy concern, there is also the convenience factor to consider. Yes, buying a 50-pack of disposable face masks on Amazon is convenient. What is not convenient is our natural ecosystems suffering and dying as a result of our oversight and lack of judgement. 

Buying a few, double-layered reusable cloth face masks seems like a decent price to pay if it means we can help slow the decline of our struggling world. Tossing a couple in the washer on laundry day is an easy individual action that prevents microplastics from seeping into and poisoning our food sources and natural wonders. 

Investing in a few reusable ones is investing in the only place we get to call home during our time here––as well as investing into the lives of future generations and affording them a quality of life on a fruitful and beautiful planet. 

Follow the Center for Disease Control’s (CDC) guidelines and wear a mask. Just, please, make it one you can wash and wear again.

Our globe is counting on it.