Thursday, September 21, 2023

3 Years On, Face Masks Are Still Routine. Here’s How to Wear Them Sustainably.


To say face masks were widely used during the covid pandemic is a gross understatement. And three years later, we’re still wearing them routinely. But pollution from face masks is a pandemic in its own right. Here’s how to reduce face mask pollution and wear them sustainably.

During peak covid, face masks were one of many medical essentials in short supply as the general public needed them nearly as much as healthcare workers.

However, requiring nearly everyone on earth to wear face masks presented another issue: face mask pollution. Most face masks are single-use only, contributing to the 129 billion being thrown away monthly. According to one study by Italian researchers, each face mask can release up to 173,000 microfiber plastics into the world’s waters daily.

While public face mask usage has lessened since the early days of the pandemic, it’s still required in a number of situations; wearing face masks will remain a thing for a long while. Unfortunately, that means more of them will end up in the environment unless steps are taken to prevent it. These steps involve correctly disposing of solid waste, disinfecting used N95 masks, and switching to reusable cloth face masks. 

Reusable face masks

The problem of face mask pollution has spurred a niche market for reusable face masks, such as Masao Mask and other brands. The rationale can’t be any more straightforward: a mask that can be used up to three times can keep three single-use masks away from the environment. 

kid in mask
A child wears a face mask. Courtesy Taylor Brandon | Unsplash

Reusing masks is still a viable method of curbing the spread of the coronavirus, even with the more infectious Omicron variants running wild. The virus is still transmitted via respiration.

How many times a reusable face mask can be reused is a good question. Face masks can only be reused for so long because their in-built filters degrade over time. The answer depends on how often you go out; health experts recommend washing cloth masks every after use and replacing them at the slightest sign of wear and tear.

An important thing to remember in washing reusable cloth face masks is to avoid washing them with alcohol or bleach. According to an Emerging Infectious Diseases research letter published in 2020, alcohol — specifically ethanol — degrades the efficacy of the mask’s filters. Meanwhile, bleach may leave traces on the filters, exposing the user to them when reusing the mask.

The paper bag technique

The same can’t be said for N95 face masks, frequently used in hospitals and healthcare settings, because getting them wet degrades their filters. However, they’re just as reusable as cloth face masks, thanks to a trick that healthcare workers relied on during the shortages.

For something so deadly, the coronavirus doesn’t last long on fabric surfaces. A study led by the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases found that the virus can only remain on surfaces for a few days at most under warmer temperatures. 

a person shopping
A woman shops in an N95 mask. Courtesy Arturo Rey | Unsplash

During the shortage, healthcare workers would rotate their N95 masks, putting used ones aside and waiting for a few days until the virus became inactivated. They would store the masks in a container, typically paper bags. With the supply situation back to normal, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) now only recommends this in a crisis scenario.

Nevertheless, some healthcare workers still practice this, and it’s just as applicable to public N95 mask use. Experts say five days to one week is a good time range. Make sure to store the bags in a warm, dry environment, as moisture can compromise the mask’s efficacy. Label the bags with the date stored or the date to reuse for convenience.

Dry heat And ultraviolet light

Decontamination was another method healthcare workers used to lengthen the lifespan of each N95 face mask they wore. The research letter from earlier stated that N95 face masks exposed to dry heat could be reused up to two times, while those exposed to ultraviolet radiation could be reused up to three times.

Dry heat refers to the heat produced by your conventional oven or multicooker. Scientists advise subjecting face masks (inside paper bags) to temperatures between 14ºF and 160ºF for 3 to 20 minutes, depending on the temperature setting. World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines state that the minimum for inactivating the virus is 133ºF.

A disposable face mask. Courtesy Tai S Captures | Unsplash

On the other hand, ultraviolet exposure as a means of killing the coronavirus has been around for as long as the pandemic itself. Although studies show promise in this regard, the Food and Drug Administration warns of the risks of improper use of germicidal lamps. The wavelength used in these lamps, UVC, is the most effective but can be hazardous to the user’s health when exposed.

Some health experts advise against either method because of the risk of ruining the face mask. They say these methods need strict protocols that can only be pulled off in a healthcare setting and that the paper bag technique is safer.

Proper disposal

If reusable cloth and N95 face masks aren’t an option, dispose of them in a secure container. This doesn’t make single-use face masks any more ideal, but it helps keep them away from places they shouldn’t go, like a sidewalk or a river.

Trash and recycle bins
Trash and recycle bins, courtesy Pawel Czerwinski | Unsplash

While there have been strides in recycling materials in used disposable masks, they’re too few and far to change the fact that such masks aren’t recyclable. Aside from landfill-unfriendly synthetics, they might also carry pathogens, covid or otherwise. Additionally, they don’t break down when flushed down the toilet, thereby adding to the risk of fouling up the sewage.

Sanitation authorities recommend throwing away masks alongside solid waste and securing the bag containing them. Experts also advise cutting the loops before disposing to protect wild animals from getting their heads or limbs stuck. Make face mask disposal a part of your change in lifestyle for a more environmentally-friendly world.

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