One hundred and twenty-nine billion masks were being thrown out every month in 2020 (Photograph by iStock)
When you imagine the plastic litter collected in a typical beach clean-up, the image of water bottles, grocery bags or takeout containers likely come to mind. But one of the top plastics found on beaches now is disposable masks. The PPE we’re all using to stay safe from COVID-19 has resulted in a disappointing, if predictable, wave of global garbage.
Just how much garbage? One hundred and twenty-nine billion masks were being thrown out every month in 2020, according to a paper co-authored by Tony Walker, associate professor at Dalhousie’s School for Resource and Environmental Studies. “It’s one thing to have those masks going into the garbage,” he says. “But they leak into the environment. They’ve been turning up in car parks and beside roads, in ditches and in waterways.”
There have been thousands of reported incidents of animals being entangled in masks or ingesting them, and newer research shows that when they break down, most face masks turn into microplastics. “Just like a bag or some other single-use plastic item, masks will start to fragment and weather; they don’t simply go away,” says Walker.
It appears few want to sacrifice their health for a lighter environmental footprint—a trade-off that became especially pronounced with the new variants, as many Canadians switched from cloth masks to disposable N95s.
Even if the market for masks drops as mandates are removed across various provinces, the demand is still expected to exist in health-care. And even among the general public, using a mask in public will never feel as unfamiliar as it did at the outset of the pandemic, says David Fisman, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health. “The future will likely see us using masks much more readily in North America, much as is already the case, and has been for many years, in Asia,” he says. What’s also not going away is the waste problem. “Waste tonnage from PPE is a huge issue,” Fisman concurs.
Davinder Valeri, a CPA, and director of strategy risk and performance for CPA Canada believes that a significant move towards greater environmental consciousness about masking is coming. “Masks will have to be healthy for the environment, as well as healthy for you,” she says.
That notion is driving a new line of reusable N95 products. “I think many people are going to go down that path,” says Barry Hunt, president of the Canadian Association of PPE Manufacturers (CAPPEM).
“Any technology that’s going to get us to reusables from single-use—be it travel mugs for coffee, bags to shop with or masks—is needed.”
His optimism isn’t surprising; Hunt has skin in the game. He’s the CEO of Prescientx, a company based out of Cambridge, Ont. that has begun making two versions of reusable N95s. One, called Breathe, is made partly of hard plastic with a silicone feel, lasts over a year and comes with a small reusable filter that lasts up to six months. It’s designed to perform well in health-care settings, where stringent rules around protection reign. Another plastic reusable version, NanoMask, also lasts up to six months with occasional use. Both have a seal made of a rubber-type material, which is more airtight for average users than the paper edges of a regular disposable N95. Other companies in Canada focusing their attention on sustainable N95 masks include Precision ABM, in Winnipeg and Trebor Rx in Collingwood, Ont.
These new styles of masks allow users to “reduce resource consumption by about 90 per cent,” Hunt says, adding that the costs of purchasing masks can be reduced by the same amount.
Prescientx is already selling to the public through their website—the NanoMask costs $20, and the Breathe model $50—but they’re hoping to break into the more lucrative health-care market, which both uses and disposes of a far higher volume of masks than the general public. Hunt’s masks are currently being trialled in a few hospitals.
The development costs were partially funded by the NGen program, a call to action put out in March 2020 by the federal government focused around innovation for COVID-19.
Reusable N95s are still made of plastic, which remains a problem in need of tackling, even if far fewer of them are being disposed of than of regular single-use masks. While organizations like Tetracycle have the technology to recycle masks, the practice is not widespread; Walker says governments need to push mask manufacturers like Prescientx to ensure they get recycled by facilitating their return via specialty recycling programs among other measures.
As it stands, Walker says, reusable masks—especially those with inserts—are still cutting down on waste. “Any technology that’s going to get us to reusables from single-use—be it travel mugs for coffee, bags to shop with or masks—is needed.”
Walker hopes this is all part of a larger effort to keep us all protected in a more sustainable way. “Protecting human health is the number one priority,” he says, “but this is coming at a cost to the environment, which we also depend upon. Thinking about ways to care for both will lead us to a better place.”
THE RIPPLE EFFECT
Masks became a norm during the pandemic, as did the the boom in online grocery shopping and the widespread usage of the QR code, which look like they are here to stay.