At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, mask wearing was a regular part of life as governments imposed mandates to help slow the spread of the novel coronavirus. Because of widespread mask wearing, the use of disposable masks increased significantly. According to research, disposable masks accounted for a large portion of the estimated 129 million masks worn globally every month during the pandemic.
That’s a lot of masks, especially considering that most disposable masks are plastic products that don’t decompose well and end up in the garbage after being used, which adds up to a lot of waste.
According to a recent article published in BMJ Open, the specific amount of waste is a bit unsettling. Researchers at MIT modeled what it would have looked like if healthcare workers changed N95 masks regularly over a 6-month period of the pandemic, and found that not only would this produce up to 18 million kilograms of waste, but the cost of such frequent changing of disposable masks could cost up to $1.7 billion.
Alternatively, the research team also developed models to calculate the effects of reusable masks on waste. To no one’s surprise, these models showed that the amount of waste produced by reusable masks was a fraction of that produced by disposable ones, highlighting a need for tools and processes to produce effective, reusable masks.
The same MIT research team has started its own company to respond to this challenge. The team previously developed a prototype mask made of plastic that uses removable filters. These filters can be cleaned and reused, limiting the amount of waste. Their goal now is to mass produce this mask while maintaining filtration quality, which may help lessen the environmental and financial burden caused by disposable masks. Though the pandemic isn’t as severe as it was a year ago, mask wearing appears here to stay for a while, especially for health care workers. The need for reusable masks is more pressing than ever.
"Masks are here to stay for the foreseeable future, so it's critical that we incorporate sustainability into their use, as well as the use of other disposable personal protective equipment that contribute to medical waste," said Jacqueline Chu, the study’s lead author.