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Single-use, Disposable Masks: The Environmental Consequences of COVID-19 PPE

Updated: Oct 19, 2020

There is no doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic has tested our social, political, and economic constructs like never before and on scales never seen. Depending on the country, state, city, or community, the effects and consequences of COVID-19 are felt to varying degrees. At a minimum, these civic systems are confronted, daily. In addition, the virus has prompted individuals, organizations, institutions, and governments to advocate for wearing a mask.

Choosing between a cloth, washable mask, or a single-use blue surgical mask, is having a visible impact on the environment, globally. The single-use masks, one of the many COVID PPE (personal protective equipment) waste items are ending up in our environment, at an unsustainable rate. Because of its material makeup, it will last hundreds of years longer than the pandemic. To address this problem on a smaller scale, this piece will feature the effects happening in my city, San Francisco, CA.

The sales of disposable masks will total nearly five times as many disposable masks purchased in 2019, pre-pandemic. The United Nations reported in late July 2020, “The UN trade body, UNCTAD, estimates that global sales [of facemasks] will total some $166 billion this year, up from around $800 million in 2019.”

By month three of the global pandemic, June 2020, there were four articles within the span of three weeks, specifically aimed at confronting the environmental effects and consequences of wearing single-use masks. The Guardian, Vogue, BBC, and Fast Company all took note of the problem. In early June, The Guardian questioned if we will soon have more ‘masks than Jellyfish’ in the ocean. It’s author, Ashifa Kassam, wrote about divers in France discovering COVID-waste in the Mediterranean sea, “Divers had found what Joffrey Peltier, of organization Opération Mer Propre described as ‘COVID waste’ –dozens of gloves, masks, and bottles of hand sanitizer beneath the waves of the Mediterranean, mixed in with the usual litter of disposable cups and aluminum cans.” It’s not surprising to hear information like this when the article also notes that France’s president, Emil Macron, ordered 2 billion disposable masks for a country of 67 million people.

Next, in the “Arts and Lifestyle” section of Vogue, on June 19, Emily Chan wrote the article titled, What Can Be Done Before Disposable Face Masks And Gloves Become A Global Plastics Nightmare?. She noted the head of the cleanup organization, Oceans Asia, found masks in Hong Kong before the virus was declared a pandemic, “‘We’ve found masks on beaches all around Hong Kong,’ says Gary Stokes, co-founder of Oceans Asia.” Stokes first noticed an increase in single-use masks being washed up at the end of February 2020.” A week later, Fast Company’s, Talib Visram wrote, Masks, gloves, and other coronavirus waste are starting to fill up our oceans.” Doug Cress, Vice President of Conservation of Ocean Conservancy further corroborated this notion in an interview on BBC. “At the current rate, we’re putting 129 billion, I’m saying billion with a b, face masks into the environment every single month, [and] 65 billion plastic gloves into the environment every single month. A significant portion of those would be disposed of improperly and wind up in the ocean.” If you do the math, that is an average of nearly 2 billion masks per day going into the environment.

Globally we are seeing a huge problem. What if anything, is my community, San Francisco, doing to address the issue?

San Francisco and Single-Use Masks

The government and the people of San Francisco deserve a lot of credit for reducing waste in our natural urban setting and for curtailing pollution. In 1996, it was the first city to institute a large-scale composting program. Composting helps to deter methane emissions, the most potent greenhouse gas contributing to climate change. In 2007, it was also the first city to ban common plastic bags from stores. In 2012 the city council added a bag fee charge to paper bags. These are just a few actions the city and community have taken to reduce waste.

Nonetheless, San Francisco is not immune to the virus nor to mask pollution. I recently witnessed this when I went for a walk in the Sunset district from Stern Grove Park to Java beach Cafe with my grandparents in early August. From the edge of the park and just five blocks after I found three masks. Three masks in five blocks? I felt like I was on a mask treasure hunt.

Unfortunately, finding masks on the street didn’t end that day. If I leave my house for a walk, run, or bike ride in the city, I will spot a mask on the ground, or in a tree, a shrub, or a rain gutter. One day, I spotted a mask rolling through the street from my window in my apartment, like a tumbleweed in the desert.


Provoked by frustration, curiosity, and an effort to better understand where the local problem stems from, I interviewed both the beach clean up the organization, The Surfrider Foundation, and San Francisco’s Department of Environment.

Surfrider Foundation’s Plastic Pollution Manager, Rachael Coccia, and I spoke in mid-August about the issue.

Hunter: “When and where are you seeing single-use masks, and how often?”

Coccia: “They have absolutely become a lot more common, especially in the last six weeks. It was initially brought to our attention by volunteers. It’s now been made a priority clean up item. You can see this on our website”

I found Coccia’s reference while we talked, on Surfrider Foundation website they created a section specifically for COVID-19 medical waste. At the time of this conversation, there were 86 single-use masks tallied in their collection data from beach cleanups. See screenshot below.

The plastic pollution manager advocated for the safety of using a reusable mask for our own health and for the planet's health.

Coccia: “The best way to avoid the single-use liter is to choose reusable alternatives.” Surfrider had a beach clean up just south of San Francisco in Poplar Beach on August 15, 2020. Eight weeks since our conversation the results now show a total of 450 Single-Use Masks. See screenshot from October 15, 2020

The blue, single-use surgical masks are made out of non-woven polypropylene (NWPP), plastic [#5]. Due to their thin, woven nature, they are not recyclable. Coccia informed me that technically the items are supposed to be put into another plastic bag, before it's actually thrown away, because it is considered contaminated waste.

Hunter: “If people stopped using single-use surgical masks and just used reusable cloth masks would that help?”

Coccia: “Yes. In fact, it's also cheaper. Buy one or two cloth masks, wash them, and repeat. Done.” Coccia adds, “There is no scientific evidence that proves single-use is better than cloth masks.”

In fact, in April the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine tested cloth biodegradable masks to the blue surgical masks and found the cloth to be better. They tested 400 masks of 13 different design types and discovered, “The best homemade masks achieved 79% filtration as compared to surgical masks (62% to 65%)”.The big difference is the single-use surgical mask is regulated and approved by the FDA while homemade, cloth masks are not.

I wanted to know if the surge in single-use mask pollution is coming from an individual, consumer level or from mandates by institutions. I was surprised to find that when I went to the medical office at UCSF (University of California, San Francisco), Mt. Zion campus, I was immediately handed a single-use blue surgical mask after entering and they instructed me to either replace or cover the cloth mask I was wearing. I reached out to faculty to try to understand why this was necessary. Elizabeth Fernandez, the UCSF Senior Public Information Representative responded with the following:

“Scientific evidence shows that these droplets are well contained by surgical masks. We require them for everyone who enters our facilities to reduce the risk of transmitting the virus to our staff and our vulnerable patients. Due to the variability among cloth face coverings and the lack of consistency among the general public in washing those cloth coverings, we ask everyone who enters our facilities to put on a clean surgical mask upon entering.”

UCSF is prioritizing health and taking any measure to risk the spread of COVID-19.

San Francisco’s Department of Environment (SFDOE) zero waste coordinator, Alexa Kielty, shared sentiments similar to Coccia’s when I interviewed her in late August. Kieltyhas one title but wears many hats. She is a zero-waste specialist at SFDOE who mostly works on resident zero waste but also manages zero waste events in the city, works on environmental legislation, and helps to roll out programs with Recology (San Francisco’s recycling, compost, & landfill collection service). In the early months of the pandemic the overflow of waste from shelter in place, prompted Kielty and her team to speak to over eight thousand residential apartment property managers to educate them on general sorting procedures including where to dispose of disposable masks: the black landfill bin.

Kielty: “When we were speaking with Recology and SFDOE, we did communicate proper PPE disposal. We did develop a sign reminding people where the gloves, masks, and wipes go. They go in the landfill bin. We prepared a special sign and special communication for property managers to inform their residents.” In addition, Kieltylet me know of another resource for San Franciscans, the Recology’s monthly newsletter.

The question remains, is this enough? Like Coccia, Kielty feels simply sorting isn’t going to get us out of the situation we’re in and we need to switch to materials meant to be used more than once, and once they are at the end of life they can either be recycled, or decompose into the environment.

Kielty: “We are seeing more PPE litter all over San Francisco city streets and ending up around collection bins. I’ve seen a proliferation in disposable masks -- especially because we’re also dealing with fires and people are looking for additional protection. But the cloth masks work; they’re effective. We need to shift the conversation about what trash goes in which bin to what we consume and make different purchasing choices. We are not going to recycle or compost our way out of this dilemma.”

I asked Kielty if she could speak to the issue of where it's coming from, individuals or institutions.

Kielty: “When I walk around outside I see people with their disposable masks. I think determining which percentage is coming from institutions versus individuals will be very difficult to parse out. It’s a combination.”

Kielty and Coccia share the notion we need to reduce the purchase of single-use masks because they end up as urban litter.

Alternatives and Different Approach

The consensus of environmental agencies, clean up crews in France and Hong Kong is that single-use disposable masks are a problem. Choosing reusable-cloth-mask to protect yourself and others during the COVID-19 pandemic is a solution that will curtail pollution. The sheer amount of single-use masks ending up in our environment and their inability to break down for centuries, makes the choice to use a cloth mask imperative.

Natural-based materials for masks are in the works as well. You can buy shoes and clothes made out of biodegradable material, so why not masks? That is the same mindset the University of British Columbia research team, BioProducts Institute had when creating masks out of wood fibers. Currently, in the testing phase, the ‘Can-Mask’ would be the world’s first fully biodegradable and compostable mask. Right now they are waiting for the green light ensuring they meet health industry specifications for fit and permeability.

While solutions to the disposable mask byway of biodegradable masks are in the works in Canada, there is a higher level systemic approach leaders can incorporate to lessen the environmental impact of COVID PPE waste: transitioning to a circular economy, an economic system aimed at reducing waste. Creating protective equipment that only protects humans, temporarily, one time, is detrimental to both the environment and the economy. The pandemic comes with its set of unpredictable problems, but adding more urban litter by way of plastic pollution to biomes and the ocean is creating another problem present and future generations will have to combat. If those who make procurement decisions for medical materials question the long term effects of non-recyclable material, consider solutions that can help both humans and our natural environment, such as biodegradable materials, then we will have less waste, and a society that thrives instead of survives.

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