Eleanor Hildebrandt | July 22, 2021
After 16 months in the COVID-19 pandemic, disposable masks are taking their toll on the environment.
A new study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that 7,200 tons of medical waste has been generated every day during the pandemic. A significant amount of the waste is from disposable masks that are used by health care professionals to help mitigate the spread of novel coronavirus.
If reusable masks were adopted by more people—including health care workers—the waste could be decreased by 75 percent. An MIT Assistant Professor, Giovanni Traverso, developed a reusable N95 mask that can be sterilized and reused. If these masks were used by health care workers in the United States, it would cut down 84 million kilograms of waste alongside decreasing the financial cost to medical centers and hospitals across the country.
In May, Swansea University found harmful chemicals and pollutants that can be released if disposable masks are submerged in water. The researchers called the rise of single-use masks in today’s society a “new cause of pollution.” Mainly, the masks pose a plastic pollution problem.
In a March study from the University of Southern Denmark, researchers found that disposable masks are now on a similar production mass as plastic bottles. Since nonreusable masks cannot be recycled, their use is adding to a significant accumulation of waste across the globe. Some of these masks have plastic microfibers as well. No data on mask degradation in nature exists yet, so the long-term effects of theses fibers is unknown.