If one billion people wear one face mask per day, they produce 15 million tonnes of plastic waste at a single time.
If that same amount of people wear two face masks per day (for approximately 80 days), they will produce 1.2 billion tonnes of waste to be incinerated.
Only a small number of masks are actually made out of paper materials, the rest are made out of plastic.
The most commonly worn masks are surgical masks or N95 masks. These are made up of a melt-blown polymer sandwiched between two layers of non-woven fabric fixed to the wearers’ face by means of polymer-based straps or elastic bands.
One side of the problem with wearing and disposing of masks is the ingestion and strangulation risk to wildlifeーwe are trying to kill the drinking straw for this very same reason. The other side of the problem is that a used mask (and protective gown), correctly disposed of, is considered biohazardous waste and requires incineration.
Hazardous waste incineration produces an estimated 7 000 m3 of exhaust gas (roughly one metric tonne) per metric tonne of waste. These are mainly emissions of CO2 (carbon dioxide) as well as N2O (nitrous oxide), NOx (oxides of nitrogen), NH3 (ammonia) and organic C, measured as total carbon. This means that the emissions equivalent of the amount of face mask waste would be roughly 700 000 light passenger vehicles on the road for a year.
Neither of the commonly worn masks are considered effective in protecting the wearer against airborne viruses. A general consensus among medical experts is that if someone does have the virus, the mask may assist in reducing the likelihood of the wearer further spreading the virus. If the wearer does not have the virus, the mask will not be effective in reducing their risk of contracting the virus. The reason is twofold: neither of the commonly work mask types are effective in filtering the particles potentially carrying the virus and a mask wearer is at greater risk of contracting the virus due to increased contact with the face from constantly adjusting the mask. Ironic, right?
It is too early to attempt an estimate of the increased disposal of face masks (and gowns) as the world battles this unprecedented pandemic. But with the global spread of COVID-19 and the non-essential wearing of face masks, the increase in face mask waste is expected to be in exponential excess over and above the actual confirmed infections. This will both hurt the environment and set us back on years of progress with future sustainability plans and green investments.
Taking responsibility for your health is an absolute priority, but businesses and individuals must remember to maintain some consideration for the sustainability of our environment, which can and will affect us for many years to come.
Jan Harm Erasmus is an out-of-the box thinker for Business Not As Usual. He is passionate about sustainability, not only to address current challenges, but also to leave something for future generations. Jan Harm holds a BSc in Architecture, a BEng in Industrial Engineering and is currently in the process of completing his Master of Urban Studies for Sustainable Energy Efficient Cities.