Disposable masks can take up to 450 years to decompose. Here’s how to help the environment while remaining safe from COVID.

·8 min read
Disposable masks break into micro-sized plastic fibers and and can take up to 450 years go decompose. (Photo: Getty Images)
Disposable masks break into micro-sized plastic fibers that can take up to 450 years to decompose. (Photo: Getty Images)

In Unearthed, Gen Z climate-change activists discuss some of the most pressing issues facing our planet — and reveal what you can do to help make a real difference.

Despite most states ditching their mask mandates, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention relaxing its guidelines, we are still in the midst of a global pandemic. And that means many people will still be advised to keep wearing — or choose to keep wearing — masks and, in many cases, “the most protective,” which, according to the CDC, include the N95, KN95 and KF94, considered the “gold standard” in protection, as well as surgical masks.

But at the same time, another global calamity is raging: the climate crisis. It’s why adding disposable masks — made of materials including polypropylene, which break into micro-sized plastic fibers and can take up to 450 years to decompose — to the already inconceivable pile of plastics in landfills has many environmental experts very worried.

"It's really tricky because we need masks to protect ourselves," Stéphanie Regni, founder of Fillgood, a zero-waste and plastic-free refill store, in Berkeley, Calif., tells Yahoo Life. "But especially with this latest variant, everyone is wearing the N95, so the waste is tremendous."

Pre-COVID, plastic pollution was already wreaking havoc on the environment. Today, according to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), "if historical data is a reliable indicator, it can be expected that around 75 percent of the used masks, as well as other pandemic-related waste, will end up in landfills, or floating in the seas."

A disposable face mask hangs on a tree. (Photo: NICOLAS TUCAT/AFP via Getty Images)
A disposable face mask hangs on a tree. (Photo: NICOLAS TUCAT/AFP via Getty Images)

That’s three-quarters of 129 billion masks that end up in the trash monthly — or 3.4 billion daily — according to one frequently cited estimate of global mask use, and that’s on top of all of the other plastic we're tossing into the landfill, from plastic bags to plastic cups.

Mask materials can be even more complicated. Take the common disposable surgical mask, for example, which, explains a 2021 study out of the University of Denmark, is made of three layers — an outer layer of nonabsorbent material, such as polyester, that protects against splashes; a middle layer “of non-woven fabrics (eg polypropylene and polystyrene)” and an inner absorbent layer of cotton. Polypropylene, it notes, “is one of the most commonly produced plastics and the high usage has led to a large waste accumulation in the environment.”

Hannah Testa, a sustainability advocate and freshman at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, explains in her book Taking on the Plastics Crisis that "plastic is designed to be durable and long lasting, which is great for some applications, but for items that we use for such a temporary time, this creates an enormous problem. Plastic is so durable that it doesn’t break down or biodegrade but instead breaks up into smaller and smaller pieces,” meaning it will remain on earth for hundreds if not thousands of years.

Just a single face mask, according to a study in Environmental Advances, can release as many as 173,000 microfibers per day into the seas. And a recent National Geographic report cites a far-ranging ripple effect of the disposable mask crisis: “Scientists have recorded their presence on South American beaches, river outlets in Jakarta Bay, in Bangladesh, on the coast of Kenya, and on the uninhabited Soko Islands in Hong Kong,” it notes, as well as clogging street drains in cities from New York City to Nairobi and messing with sewage systems in Vancouver, B.C. The volume of masks is also disrupting the lives of various animals, it explains — including a Netherlands bird seen collecting face masks to build into nests and the “swans, seagulls, peregrine falcons and songbirds," that become fatally entangled, according to a study in Animal Biology.

So, what on earth can we do?

For simple starters, Testa, who founded nonprofit Hannah4Change, often double masks. "I have cloth masks that I can reuse and wash under my N95, so I can keep reusing the N95," she says.

Many experts, meanwhile, have outlined other ways that you can reuse your N95s. For example, Joanne Chen writes in The New York Times, “Yes, reusing a mask is safe … That said, it’s safest, and just good hygiene, to handle your masks with care, touching only the elastics and washing your hands afterward." If it gets damp from your breath, she says, put it in a paper bag for a few days, adding, “Keeping those paper bags in a dry spot (ideally by a sunny window) can help enhance the viral-deactivation process.”

You can also recycle masks, believe it or not — though it’s not quite as simple as tossing them into those blue bins along with your soda bottles.

It’s something Umaimah Mendhro, founder and CEO of VIDA, has set out to tackle. Though the San Francisco accessory company began selling artist-designed cloth masks at the start of the pandemic, Mendhro (who happens to be the daughter of two doctors) eventually realized she had to offer more protective options, namely KN95s. “But with all of these masks just going to the landfill,” she says, “it’s like we were facing one crisis while creating a new one.” So, she says she told her team, “We’re going to find a way to recycle these masks.”

Thus began her partnership with TerraCycle, the New Jersey–based company with the tagline: “Recycle everything with TerraCycle.” Now, with every VIDA mask order, customers receive an envelope for the return of used masks for recycling, which is handled by TerraCycle.

What happens next, TerraCycle founder and CEO Tom Szaky tells Yahoo Life, is that the metal nose strips get manually removed and sent off to be smelted into metal sheeting and “bar stock,” a form of raw material used in metalworking and manufacturing. Then the polypropylene mask itself is “turned into a product like composite decking or plastic lumber.” (Companies around the world have had similar aims, such as Plaxtil in France, which is recycling masks into visors and door openers; the Cardiff-based Thermal Compaction Group in the U.K., turning hospital masks into school chairs; and the Canadian PPE recycling program Vitacore.)

TerraCycle also takes back all types of masks — including N95 and surgical — bought anywhere, directly from the consumer, through a convenient if pricey Zero Waste Box, which can be shipped to the TerraCycle when full. The boxes range from $88 to $219 based on capacity, from 444 in the smallest to 2,333 in the largest.

Though TerraCycle did face a lawsuit by a California nonprofit just last year when eight partners (including Coca-Cola, L’Oreal and Tom’s of Maine) discovered the products they’d been encouraging consumers to recycle actually weren’t able to be, Szaky says it’s only helped them operate more openly and efficiently. “Yes, we faced a lawsuit and it was fully settled at the end of 2021. Nevertheless, I do think it’s led to a very good change,” he says, noting that TerraCycle now makes it clear on labeling when participation is limited.

It only shows, though, how confusing and complicated the whole process of plastic recycling can be.

A worker at the start-up Plaxtil, in France, with masks to be recycled into plastic to make visors, door openers, and more. (Photo: GUILLAUME SOUVANT/AFP via Getty Images)
A worker at the start-up Plaxtil, in France, with masks to be recycled into plastic to make visors, door openers, and more. (Photo: GUILLAUME SOUVANT/AFP via Getty Images)

Which is why yet another solution may be the most promising: New models of reusable face masks made with filters that bring their level of protection close to that of the best disposables.

According to recent independent lab tests commissioned by The New York Times, two masks in particular — Enro ($16.50 each) and Happy Masks Pro ($24 a pop) blocked “94 percent to 99 percent of the smallest particles tested — performance that is on a par with that of N95 and KN95 masks.” (Enro itself puts the level of filtration at 99 percent, Happy Masks at 99.9.) By contrast, it found, “many of the basic cloth masks without filters blocked only about 20 percent of the smallest particles.”

Another brand, AirPop, is among the priciest, at $50 each, though its founder Chris Hosmer claims a greater than 97 percent “sub-micron particle filtration efficiency.” Also, he tells Yahoo Life, you can give the mask a “quick refresh” with an alcohol wipe or hand-washing which, when done properly, gives the mask a life of at least 40 hours.

Still, the NY Times report says it’s important to know that other independent tests of cloth masks with filters have shown a much lower performance rate — 60 to 80 percent blockage in one case, and 70 to 80 percent in another.

Meanwhile, you can help deal with the waste that’s already out there little by little, by taking a page from activists who create art or fashion from found disposable masks — or who simply gather them (safely, with a grabber), like Lilly Platt, 13, of the Netherlands, who founded Lilly’s Plastic Pickup when she was in elementary school. Recently, while on a walk with her grandfather, she picked up 181 trashed masks.

“We have a small pond at school, and there are so many face masks floating in the water,” she tells Yahoo Life. In a recent Instagram post about her litter collection, she pleads: “Love your Mother Earth!”

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