The COVID-19 pandemic has done more than just highlight a global health crisis. It has also contributed to climate change due to the increased production and use of face masks, medical gloves, and other personal protective equipment (PPE). In fact, 3.4 billion single-use face masks are discarded daily worldwide.
While essential to people’s health and safety, these items have been unsurprisingly harmful to the environment, especially when disposed of improperly. Increasing waste pollution consequently threatens the planet’s population and its future.
The damage has been done, but there is still a silver lining to all this. The infographic below provides an overview of the effects of face mask waste and a guide on how to properly use and dispose a face mask as the world adjusts to the new normal.
Global Consumption of Single-Use Face Masks
With the pandemic forcing people to prioritize their health and safety, face masks have become an essential item in people’s daily lives. Around 129 billion face masks are used monthly during the pandemic, while 3.4 billion face masks are discarded daily.
Within that demographic, the Philippines ranks eighth among Asian countries that use the most single-use face masks, with nearly 49 million pieces worn every day.
Health experts recommend single-use face masks—especially those made from synthetic materials like polypropylene and polyester—because they effectively block the droplet transmission of the virus. However, when disposed of improperly, they pose a threat to the planet as they are non-reusable and non-biodegradable.
Risks Associated with Improper Disposal of Face Masks
Improperly discarded face masks bring about many risks to both human life and the environment more than anyone realizes. Some of these risks include the following:
Causes short- and long-term social and environmental harmThe effects of biomedical waste on the environment are not new. Even prior to the pandemic, improper disposal of biomedical waste has led to the contamination of drinking, surface, and ground waters; release of chemical substances into the environment; and generation of ash residue through incineration.
Many of these effects persist today due to the lack of or overall absence of biomedical waste management policies, insufficient funds and manpower, and low prioritization to address the matter at hand.
With face mask litter contributing to the current climate crisis, eco-warriors are worried that their pre-pandemic efforts have been reversed and that it will take a much longer time to save the environment.
Creates debris that threatens marine ecosystemsA 2020 study found that 56 billion face masks wound up in oceans in the first year of the pandemic, amounting to 5,500 tons of plastic pollution.
This data is troubling, considering that the plastic used in face masks can remain in the environment for up to 450 years. A single surgical mask can also release as many as 173,000 microfibers per day in bodies of water.
Not only does this endanger the lives of marine animals, but humans too, as they depend on seas and oceans for many things such as food, fresh water, and oxygen.
Turns rivers and mountain terrain into dumpsites which impacts wildlifeMany studies and reports have confirmed the threat that COVID-19 litter poses to animals. There have been documented instances of penguins ingesting a face mask and a fish species called European perch being found trapped inside a plastic glove.
In the 28 reports of harmed wildlife due to COVID-19 waste, biologists found that majority involved single-use face masks. The impact of this new type of litter has been observed in many habitats by both vertebrates and invertebrates.
If they are not tangled in face masks, animals either choke on the litter or become malnourished because the plastics fill their stomachs.
Increases incinerator capacity demand
With billions of single-use face masks being disposed of daily, demand for incinerator capacity has also increased. In fact, countries such as Thailand, India, and South Korea already have specific disposal and incineration policies for face masks during the pandemic.
Incinerators are essential in the management and disposal of biomedical waste. The major downside to them is that they release harmful chemicals, heavy metals, and pollutants into the air and water. This affects communities near solid waste incinerators, putting people at risk of cancers, birth defects, and other major illnesses.
To prevent these risks from happening, proper disposal of face masks should come into play.
Proper Disposal of Face Masks
It is not too late to adopt proper face mask disposal practices in offices, communities, and, most importantly, at home. Both sustainability and health experts recommend doing the following:
Create guidelines, standards, and strict implementation of face mask waste managementAs mask-wearing becomes a routine part of life in the new normal, everyone needs to create and follow proper face mask waste management guidelines in both commercial and residential places.
Some of these guidelines can include color coding trash bins to sort different types of waste, employing specialists for hazardous waste, shipping face mask waste to incineration facilities, and more.
According to the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), doing so can help protect garbage collectors from catching COVID-19 and other diseases and prevent face masks from contaminating other solid wastes.
Having proper waste management guidelines can also ensure that used face masks do not threaten animal life and the environment.
Set a trash receptacle exclusive for face masksEven before the pandemic, it has always been recommended to separate biomedical waste from regular garbage as the former can spread illnesses and infections. With COVID-19 being a highly contagious disease, improper trash segregation can lead to more harm than good.
It is crucial to discard single-use face masks immediately in an exclusive closed bin. Separating them from general trash can help speed up the jobs of garbage collectors and ensure that face masks will be disposed of properly in landfills.
Cut the ear loops of face masksThere have been reports of animals like robins, seagulls, penguins, and hedgehogs getting entangled in the ear loops of improperly discarded face masks. This prevents them from moving comfortably, disabling them from their natural movement and making them fall prey to nature and predators.
For these reasons, it is advised to cut the ear loops of face masks first before discarding them in their respective trash bin.
Mark the bag appropriatelyWhether face masks are discarded in transparent or opaque plastic bags, it is also recommended to mark with “Contains Used Face Masks.”
This can help garbage collectors immediately identify face mask waste and segregate them for proper disposal in landfills. It can also prompt them to wear protective equipment such as gloves before handling discarded face masks.
Go for reusable or washable face masksUsing reusable face masks made of cloth is the best way to reduce face mask waste. It is worth noting, however, that cloth masks do not provide the same protection as single-use face masks. Depending on the setting and situation (e.g. not staying in crowded spaces such as supermarkets, restaurants, terminals, etc.), one may limit the use of medical-grade face masks.
When making and using reusable face masks, researchers recommend using a combination of either cotton and chiffon or cotton and natural silk as both can filter droplets and aerosols. The efficacy of these materials is similar to that of N95 masks used by healthcare workers.
Combinations of tightly woven cotton and natural silk or flannel, and cotton quilt and cotton-polyester batting are also effective in curbing the spread of viruses. Using cotton alone cannot filter droplets and prevent them from contaminating surfaces and possibly infecting people.
Everyone is recommended to wash their hands thoroughly after disposing of their used face masks. The recommended time for proper handwashing is 40 to 60 seconds, as that is enough for soap molecules to break down dirt, bacteria, and viruses.
Stay Safe in an Eco-Friendly Way
After two years, it is clear for now that face masks will continue to be an essential part of daily life. The COVID-19 pandemic has taught everyone from all walks of life to prioritize their health and adopt the best practices when it comes to personal hygiene to keep themselves free from infection.
However, as the world focuses on the ongoing health crisis, everyone must also be aware of their impact on the environment. Properly disposing of face masks, whether in commercial spaces or at home, can reduce the effects of climate change and curb the spread of various diseases. Change starts by using one less single-use product today.
For world-class healthcare facilities and healthcare services for the treatment of infectious diseases and other conditions, visit Makati Medical Center today. We adhere to strict face mask waste management policies to ensure our patients’ safety and the preservation of the planet.