From the very beginning, the pandemic meant we had to get used to carrying around a new accessory: a face mask. Thanks to them, we have been able to protect ourselves and those around us.
It is most likely, that despite your best intentions to always use reusable face masks, on occasion, you have had to use disposable masks, e.g. due to certain company’s work protocols during the pandemic that don’t allow the use of any face masks that are not provided by the company.
At Sinplastico we have been asking ourselves: What impact have all these disposable face masks had on our environment? We would like to tell you about what we have discovered in this post.
What are single use disposable face masks made of?
In the EU the single use surgical face masks are made up of 3 layers, 2 of them are polymer fibre fabrics (in other words, plastic) and 1 layer, in between the other 2, is made up of a non-woven fabric, then there is the high-density polyethylene band across the bridge of the nose.
The FFP2 masks are made of multiple dense non-woven fabric layers and also rely on a support band across the nose.
Both these types of faces masks use synthetic elastic bands to hold them in place.
Due to the inherent natural differences between the components of face masks and how difficult it is to separate them from each other, disposable face masks are not recyclable.
At Sinplastico we have hygienic, safe reusable face masks available.
Let’s calculate: some figures relating to the use of face masks
In order to understand the magnitude of all of this, let’s do the numbers:
- On an average day at work, one person should use 2 surgical face masks, that corresponds to around 5g of plastic.
- According to the Spanish National Office for Statistics (INE), just in 2020, 293 million Spanish made face masks were sold across Spain alone. (this figure includes surgical, FPP2 and reusable face masks). This figure does not take into account all the face masks sold that were manufactured in other countries such as China.
- Between April and September 2020, the European Union imported 170,000 tonnes of face masks, over and above the normal requirement.
- Between March 2020 and November 2021, the UN sent 87,000 tonnes of personal protective equipment (PPE) for healthcare workers to different parts of the world, it is expected that the majority of this ended up as waste in the rubbish. This figure includes face masks, along with other types of PPE.
When confronted with these quantities you can understand that we are facing a problem that needs to be addressed urgently and in the right way.
Where have all these single use face masks gone?
Following the instructions given by the Spanish Government, the correct way to dispose of a single use face mask would be to dispose of it in the general waste container (the “other” section), this waste bin has a different colour in each province.
But never in the bin allocated for compost or recyclable containers.
You should also cut the elastic bands designed to hold the mask in place.
But, where is the final resting place of these disposable face masks?
- In landfill, because that’s where they will end up if we follow these instructions correctly.
- In the oceans, this is where they appear when they have not been disposed of correctly and they end up on the ground, in the parks, in gutters and storm water drains, etc. The Spanish Department of Ecological Transition and Demographic Change has studied plastic waste on beaches. 71% of the total is plastic, and medical waste (such as disposable face masks) now makes up 6.5% of this plastic waste. This waste can turn into obstacles and even traps for our wildlife, especially if the elastic bands have not been cut. In the end, they start breaking down and becoming…
- … microplástics, when they start to deteriorate due to their exposure to sunlight, salt water and air: a surgical face mask takes up to 450 years to break down into small polymer particles.
- Incineration, this is the best case scenario. However the UN has also warned about the possible risks of the toxins generated by uncontrolled incineration of infected used face masks.
What impact does the use of disposable face masks have on the environment?
If there is one thing you become more aware of whilst educating yourself about the environment around us, it is the fact that each product we use doesn’t just have an environmental impact at the time of its use. When it comes to disposable face masks the same rule applies.
- 21.9 tonnes of CO2 are emitted per tonne of face masks.
- If you count the transport involved, seeing as the majority of masks come from China, we could be getting close to 33.5 tonnes of CO2 per tonne.
If we multiply this by the additional 170,000 tonnes of face masks the EU had to import thanks to the pandemic, the figure increases to nearly 5.7 million tonnes of CO2, and that just relates to the masks manufacture (and only takes into account the EU).
We need to consider the environmental consequences that result from the mismanagement of this medical waste, the repercussions are already being studied, especially when it comes to the impact on the marine environment.
It has already been shown that the degradation of face masks has an affect on the marine environment. In this study, 2 conclusions were drawn:
- The process of single use face masks breaking down in water releases minerals and organic compounds into the surrounding water.
- These substances, that were previously not present in the marine environment, have effected 40 zebrafish genes related to its reproduction system. This could affect the whole population of this species, not just the individual.
In addition, we need to consider the fact that the presence of microplastics in the planet’s water and in the ground is already high, hence we are only making the situation worse.
What option will you choose now?
There are still places in which it is necessary to wear a mask in order to protect ourselves. Perhaps for this reason, and knowing now what we have just explained, you would like to consider using reusable and safe options.
In our e-shop we have 2 styles on offer, each in various sizes, so that you can minimise the plastic contained in what has become an item we need to have at our fingertips on a daily basis.
At Sinplastico we have chosen to make face masks that protect you and also protect the planet.