O. M. G.
This living through a ginormous historical event is sooo exhausting.
The news cycle. The variants. The maskless idiot at the grocery store ranting about his freedoms. The supply chain issue that leaves you explaining to a three year old that the market is clean outta Gogurt. We’re sick of it all, burned out to extra crispy, and rapidly forgetting what ‘normal’ used to look like. I feel your pain, brothers and sisters.
So let’s talk about a whole new, and as usual, totally foreseeable problem.
I guess it’s completely understandable that in the middle of a global health crisis the sustainability of personal protective equipment is not going to be high on the priority list. People are dying. We get it. But…you’ll never guess what single use face masks are made of. You guessed it, didn’t you? That would be plastic.
Recent studies estimate that humans are using an astounding 129 billion face masks globally every month -- that is 3 million a minute! Most of them are of the disposable variety and have a layer made from plastic microfibers. Microfibers are just the worst as they enter the food chain lickity split. And to add insult to injury, those multi layered masks contain metal and cotton making them virtually impossible to recycle.
Then there’s humans being, well, human. Raise your hand if you’re already utterly disgusted by the number of masks you’ve seen … everywhere. People toss them in uncovered trash cans and off they go with the next gust of wind. They are the "new" litter you see in the street, which is gross but inevitable. And ALL litter eventually goes into water somewhere.
OceansAsia, a nonprofit marine conservation advocacy organization, recently conducted research about how many single-use face masks are likely to have entered the world’s oceans in 2020. Overall, the organization estimates that more than 1.5 billion face masks made it to the oceans in 2020, resulting in an additional 4,680 to 6,240 metric tons (about 5,160 to 6,880 U.S. tons) of marine plastic pollution. That’s in addition to our regular dumped plastic stuff and don’t get me started on take out containers.
YOU are a good human and have been faithfully wearing your cotton mask, but now we have extra catchy Omicron and the CDC recommends double masking.
As we have come to admit, as a species we rarely give much consideration to the end game of the wonders that we create. So is there an answer here? Ummm… not really.
TerraCycle, a company known for its ability to recycle challenging materials, offers a mask recycling program through the Fisher Scientific channel. This is really designed for businesses but could work in a neighborhood or apartment building. You start by purchasing a TerraCycle Disposable Masks Zero Waste Box, a cardboard box clearly marked for face mask disposal and recycling. You use the box as a collection point and when it’s full mail it back to TerraCycle for processing. This isn’t a cheap option, but it does keep some of the plastic out of the ocean.
Otherwise, the best thing that we can do is make sure that we dispose of our kN95’s in a closed, lidded trash can. There is little danger (but a lot of yuck factor) in picking up masks you see laying around as long as you wash your hands after. Sending used masks to a landfill is the best we can do for now. After all, Mother Earth needs more plastic in her oceans like I need more ranting idiots at the grocery store.
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Me Mother Earth was created by Amanda Runkle and Alberto Gomes who aren’t experts, just two Mother Earth loving humans who share their plastic-free tips and advice with the help of contributor writers. The various DIY & zero waste methods, suggestions, and tutorials on Me.Mother Earth are not error proof, they’re merely what worked for Amanda and Alberto along the way. Extra precautions and additional research are always advised and Me.Mother Earth cannot be held responsible for your personal health or the outcomes from any of the articles shared on our Blog.