Disposable face masks are creating a serious environmental problem that recycling efforts are not going to solve.
In a world that consistently chooses convenience, single-use plastics are the default. These single-use options are increasing the amount of waste we produce worldwide and our environment is feeling the grave effects.
The COVID-19 pandemic has introduced a unique facet of plastic pollution that continues to fly under the radar: disposable face masks.
Single-use face masks contain substances known as microplastics. When masks are exposed to sunlight and water over extended periods of time, they decompose. Throughout this process, microplastics are leaked into our environment and washed into rivers.
According to a study published in the journal "Science of the Total Environment," there is compelling evidence that disposable face masks have the potential to rapidly increase the volume of synthetic microparticles present in our environment. These toxins are especially dangerous because they travel virtually unnoticed and are extremely hard to contain.
Joe Jones, the Green Quad Faculty Principal, summarizes the process of decomposition as one piece of plastic dissolving into an unstoppable army of toxic fragments.
“I can pick up a plastic bag. I can’t pick up 10,000 little pieces of plastic from that bag after it’s broken down in the environment," Jones said.
The fundamental problem of plastic pollution originates long before we see litter on our streets. In fact, it starts when plastic is produced.
Manufacturers prefer the cheapest and most convenient materials available. Conor Harrison, an associate professor in the USC Geography Department, said that when companies are faced with the choice of producing an item with recycled raw materials versus low-cost oil, they are more than likely going to choose the cheapest option. Because of this tendency, our individual recycling efforts become largely ineffective.
Even though we recycle the proper materials, manufacturers still avoid using these materials in production because they’re costly. This disconnect abruptly halts the system and purpose of recycling. With manufacturers making unsustainable decisions on a grand scale, our environment cannot possibly keep up with the accumulating waste.
As consumers, our actions matter. We should be mindful of recycling and make sustainable selections when possible. But even if we did everything right all the time, our efforts would only be effective in conjunction with a drastic change from producers.
We need to put more responsibility on the shoulders of the manufacturers. Harrison said that by forcing producers to determine how unwanted materials are disposed of, we’d see a change in the way items are packaged. Plastic bottles might transition to glass because it’s easier to clean and doesn’t require costly disposal.
This same thought process could be applied to manufacturing disposable face masks using more sustainable materials that would produce less plastic waste. Considering that producers are at the root of the issue, progress starts with a revision of their practices.
As a consumer, there’s still something you can do to combat the crisis. One of the best ways to reduce your environmental footprint is by wearing a reusable face mask. From production to disposal, single-use items typically spend only a few days or hours in the possession of the consumer, but one piece of improperly disposed of plastic can pollute our environment for hundreds of years. As a result, an unnecessary amount of waste is being created that could be limited if we extend the lifetime of our face masks by choosing a reusable one.
If you don’t want to spend money on reusable masks, our campus holds events where students can learn how to make their own masks. Jones said Green Quad recently hosted an event where students were taught how to make their own masks from old T-shirts. Designing your own face masks also allows for some creative expression, so have fun with it — it’s about time to put those old T-shirts to fashionable use.
In situations where you must wear a disposable face mask, just dispose of it properly. The proper way to discard your mask is to throw it in the trash can; your responsibility is to make sure it gets there. Our campus shouldn't be littered with face masks as a result of pure laziness.
The plastic pandemic is beyond the scope of the individual. We can take steps in the right direction, but the solution is deeper than that. It’s time to demand that producers give the environment the respect it deserves.