If you have not noticed already, COVID-19 has induced a world-wide pandemic over the past 5 months, and it doesn’t seem to be wavering. A way that we have been combating this health issue is through protecting ourselves and others is by (hopefully) wearing face masks, measuring our temperatures, and social distancing as best as we can.

Let’s dig deeper into that point about face masks.

What’s Going On?

Since the pandemic arrived, the production for face masks has taken on exponential growth. In Canada alone, we have nearly established self-sufficiency in terms of personal protective equipment (PPE) usage. A country of over 300 million citizens has produced enough PPE to combat the coronavirus throughout the summer. That is definitely an amazing feat to have reached. (Source: CBC)

Canada is not alone in this journey towards producing PPE. In Germany, they have also been mass-producing face masks as well; expecting to require up to 12 billion masks. (Source: EcoChain) The face mask that has been recommended by health authorities is the N95 face mask, a type of mask capable of filtering out particles and would therefore be safe to use by medical workers and others.

woman in teal shirt wearing white mask

Source: Unsplash

The Impact

It is great to hear that our governments are keeping us safe, but what repercussions could we be looking at by producing all of the PPE? The negative environmental impacts may not be the points that people are focusing on right now, which is understandable. Refer to A Miracle for One But Not Another where we discuss how COVID has proved to display positive effects for our environment. Although there are positives that have come from a COVID-19 lockdown, there are also consequences; probably not the most frequented topic, but the additional PPE produced has taken a toll on our planet.

The Production:

In order to produce an N95 face mask, we require aluminum, polypropylene (a thermoplastic polymer), and rubber. A cotton face mask would require cotton fabric, rubber and stitching for production (Source: EcoChain). For surgical masks, non-woven fabric, aluminum strips, polypropylene, polystyrene (a synthetic aromatic hydrocarbon polymer), and polyester are used in production (Source: Thomas Net).

For a measurable carbon footprint of one N95 face mask, it would be equivalent to about 50 grams of CO2, whereas a cotton face mask would be 20% higher than that – for perspective, a banana’s CO2 usage is 80 grams. Most N95 and surgical face masks would be cycled through daily as opposed to cotton masks that would be used for up to a month with washes.

Source: Unsplash

The Usage:

Although cotton face masks only produce 20% larger of a carbon footprint while sustaining a lifespan of 30x compared to N95 masks, they do not meet the medical standards for front-line workers.

According to EcoChain, Germany uses approximately 17 million N95 face masks per month and that equates to about 850 tons of CO2 produced. For real life perspective, that turns out to be 370,000 steaks, a car driving around the globe 1,060 times, and 170,000 t-shirts.

Source: EcoChain

With coronavirus cases continuously growing – hitting nearly 13,000,000 cases and 570,000 deaths in 188 countries – the need for PPE will continue to grow. (Source: Earth)

Net Negative:

To reiterate, most people would not be minding the negative environmental impacts that the coronavirus has brought upon us, but this problem will far exceed that of the virus’ impact.

From an article on Earth, a recent survey depicts a trip to the Soko Islands in Hong Kong. The HK-based environmental NGO, OceansAsia, discovered a substantial amount of improperly discarded single-use masks washed up on to the shores of the beaches.  

The additional protection that these face masks have provided for us have also contributed to additional pollution in our oceans and waterways. We are looking at a similar situation to the plastic and textile dumping in our oceans where the litter may end up hurting our aquatic wildlife.

Through Energy Live News, we also learn that Gary Stokes, the founder of OceanAsia, discovered “70 discarded masks within 100 metres of the beach and an additional 30 masks when we returned a week later.”

Our oceans experience over 13 million tonnes of plastic litter every year and our oceans might experience a whole lot more litter in the upcoming year. An article published by The Guardian explains that French authorities have ordered over two billion disposable masks and as Laurent Lombard of Opération Mer Propre states, “[k]nowing that … soon we’ll run the risk of having more masks than jellyfish in the Mediterranean.”

Source: Unsplash

When we produce and require PPE at the rate as we currently are – not only France – that would definitely contribute to the litter in our oceans and on our land for the year to come. This litter does not only ruin the quality of our drinking water or create more littered streets for us, but it also ruins the ecosystems for the other life on Earth. We need to begin our journey of becoming better Earth-mates with our other living friends.

Source: The Guardian

What Can We Do?

To be completely honest, there is not much we can do right now about the immense amount of waste and carbon emissions produced by disposable face masks as there are needed to keep everyone safe. So, for those that are keen on protecting our planet and our other living friends, we should continue to comply with health regulators, dispose of our masks properly, and possibly look out for environmentally friendly face masks (without compromising our safety).

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