When health experts recommended that we wear masks to protect ourselves from the coronavirus, masks became ubiquitous worldwide.
COVID-19 has changed the way we do many things. How we work, greet people, and travel. But most critically to the environment, it’s changed how we view and use single-use items, including plastics.
In April and May 2020, when most of us heard “mask,” we pictured the surgical masks used in hospitals. Sales of surgical masks and N95 masks shot up around the globe. But because these masks are made of plastic, the burden on our landfills increased. In one paper describing how the COVID-19 crisis will change how we use plastic, scientists estimated in June 2020 that monthly the global population was using 129 billion face masks and 65 billion gloves each month.
In a pre-pandemic world, one dump truck full of plastic was dumped into the ocean every minute. As we become aware of how adding additional plastic to our lives in the forms of masks and gloves adds to waste, we must be conscious to stop it. While hospitals have systems in place to dispose of personal protective equipment (PPE) sustainably, our municipal waste systems are not equipped to sort, recycle or divert PPE waste.
And due to increased volume, some of the waste isn't even making it to trash receptacles. Masks and other PPE that isn’t disposed of properly ends up in our environment, including streets, oceans, streams and waterways.
Masks and other PPE are vital to stopping the continued spread of the virus. But we can also use this equipment in a way that’s safe for everyone. So what steps can we take to reduce plastic waste during the pandemic?
Steps to Reduce Waste
When possible, purchase and wear cloth masks. Surgical masks are used once and thrown out, whereas cloth can be washed with clothes and used multiple times. If you’re making a mask at home, use scraps of fabric that would otherwise be thrown out. Encourage friends and family to wear cloth masks.
Plastic is also ubiquitous in protective measures, including protecting ourselves and our surrounding environments. Hand sanitizer, sanitizing surface wipes and other materials also place a significant burden on our waste systems. To help, consider the following steps where possible:
- Buy hand sanitizer in larger containers and refill smaller glass or plastic bottles instead of purchasing multiple small bottles.
- Follow CDC guidelines for cleaning and consider using reusable cloths when cleaning and sanitizing home surfaces.
- Buy cleaning wipes and supplies in bulk to reduce smaller plastic containers.
- Check recycling options for plastic containers and make sure you’re recycling these items where available.
- If you wear a disposable mask, make sure you’re putting it in the proper trash receptacle.
The pandemic has provided multiple opportunities for us to support each other and our communities. Helping those around us includes reducing the burden of plastic for our environment. Be smart and wear a mask, just make sure it’s reusable.
Eliza Erskine has a Master’s in Sustainability from the Harvard Extension School and a BA in Business Administration from Boston University. She founded Green Buoy Consulting in 2018 to help small and early stage businesses with sustainability. She grew up in the Pacific Northwest and lives in New York City.