With such emphasis on the wearing of face masks since the Covid-19 pandemic, we now find ourselves with another problem created by the massive increase in single-use masks, and the disposal thereof. To support both World Environment Day on 5 June and World Oceans Day on 8 June, Kat has done some delving…
I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling a huge sadness and despair at the vast number of discarded face masks everywhere I walk. While people are and have been, doing their best to ‘do the right thing’ in covering their mouths and noses when out and about shopping, the disposal of these single-use protective coverings seems to be proving a problem in itself. The public generally doesn’t have adequate means of disposing of surgical or disposable masks properly, whereas healthcare workers in hospitals tend to dispose of their masks in nominated bins, the contents of which are then incinerated, to avoid contamination.
According to Waste Free Oceans plastic masks can take 450 years to decompose. While face masks may look like paper, they’re actually made of polypropylene, part of the thermoplastic family. When disposed of, they will inevitably, eventually make their way to our oceans and break into microplastics (much like many of our clothing fibres) which can get ingested by marine life.
Of course, there’s also been a huge rise in the manufacture of reusable material face masks… with almost as much emphasis on them being a fashion accessory, as being just as effective protection as the disposable ones. The added benefit to these are that they can save you money! Used responsibly, fabric, washable masks can be worn over and over again.
For those environmentally conscious, that still don’t have their own reusable masks, I have found there is a light at the end of the tunnel. A Dutch organisation has embedded flower seeds into single-use rice paper masks in a bid to cut down on plastic pollution and give back to nature.
When planted into soil and watered, the seeds start to germinate and will ultimately grow into a small patch of wildflowers. Fabricated in a small community workshop in the Netherlands, the face mask itself will biodegrade whether placed in a garden or a landfill.
Although it still looks some way off yet, researchers at RMIT University, Australia have found that a new road-making material – developed with a mix of shredded single-use face masks and processed building rubble, meets civil engineering safety standards. A1km stretch of a two-lane road could use up around three million masks, diverting 93 tonnes of waste from landfill.
“Our experimental results show that the mixture of shredded face masks and recycled concrete aggregate satisfies the stiffness and strength requirements for the base layers of roads,” says Dr. Mohammad Saberian, lead author of the research.
On looking more into this interesting development, I found that within these fascinating articles:
… there’s currently no actual ‘call to action’ for the general public yet. The researchers are looking to find a local government or partner to assist in collecting masks and building a prototype. Let’s hope that this happens fast. I’d be very interested if anyone hears any updates on this. Do drop me a line!