The Unexpected Environmental Impact of Single-Use Masks

The Unexpected Environmental Impact of Single-Use Masks

Photo by Rec Stock Footage

The initial shock of walking down the street and seeing everyone with mask-covered faces, like some sort of dystopian film, is long over. Even so, masks are still an integral part of our everyday society and although vaccination distribution is on the rise, masks continue to serve a powerful purpose - Keeping us safe.

Now, let’s be honest, after a year in this pandemic, we’ve all had that thought, “What does a smile even look like anymore?” 

Humor aside, wearing a mask is something we have all had to adjust to. After all, safety and survival will always be at the root of humankind’s priority list and, so far, the world is doing a great job. However, as with many mass-scale single-use items, such as plastic bags and straws, there are environmental implications from using disposable face masks. 

The good news is that alternatives to single-use items pop up in every instance, and in the case of the Covid-19 face mask, reusable masks are a safe, environmentally friendly, and more cost-effective solution.

So, exactly how big is the impact of single-use masks, really? In this post, we discuss what kind of impact disposable masks have on the environment and the most effective ways to make a difference during this significant time in all of our lives.

How Disposable Masks Impact the Environment

Photo by Carol Hamilton

Generally, environmentally harmful single-use products are made of some form of plastic. This includes most single-use face masks too, which can be made of plastics like polypropylene, polyethylene, and vinyl. Even when disposed of correctly, single-use face masks and other plastics take up to 450 years to degrade and may still accidentally end up in the oceans or cause harm to the environment over this long period of time.

To prove just how dire the situation could be, Greenpeace highlighted a study by University College London, stating that if everyone in the UK alone wore a single-use mask every day, there would be 66,000 tonnes of plastic waste discarded each year. This shocking statistic is one that we hope never sees the light of day.

Here are some ways that single-use face masks can affect the environment and why you should always opt for more environmentally friendly options instead:


Photo by Baramee2554

Unlike some single-use plastic items, like plastic bags, disposable masks are not allowed to be recycled. They are considered medical waste, destining them for a life in a landfill, indirectly harming our ecosystems and animals.

Medical waste is non-recyclable even when made of recyclable plastics, as handling these items may pose a risk of cross-contamination. For example, if a disposable mask is used by someone with the Covid-19 virus, sending the mask to a recycling plant may spread the virus to workers who come into contact with it or other items it has touched.

The best option we have is to reduce the use of non-recyclable items to keep them out of the landfills from the start. Plastic in landfills can affect wild-life through consumption or tangling, including birds, small mammals, and insects. So far, since the pandemic started, single-use masks in landfills have especially affected birds, with the strings tangling around their legs.

Damage to Ocean Ecosystems

Photo by AegeanBlue

Like most other single-use plastic items that enter the ocean, disposable masks can wreak havoc on our oceans’ ecosystems. Even when disposed of correctly, the sheer volume of masks ending up in landfills may lead to dumping, and masks accidentally being carried into the ocean via wind or animal.

Once in the ocean, masks can be mistaken for food by unsuspecting sealife, causing severe internal damage. They may also become entangled around limbs, posing a serious threat to marine animals' lives.

Due to the lifespan of these masks, there are plenty of opportunities for a mask to accidentally cause harm. Along with direct harm to animals, over time masks will start degrading into microplastics and leak harmful chemicals into the environment as well.

Contribute to Microplastics

Photo by David Pereiras

Although plastic cannot biodegrade, the material does break down over time, both in the ocean and in landfills.

When plastic items, like a single-use mask, sit in a landfill or float on the surface of the ocean water for long enough, the sun slowly weakens the bonds of the plastic, causing it to break down. Eventually, the plastic breaks down into tiny particles less than 5 millimeters in size, called microplastics.

Microplastics pollute our oceans and soil. Both land and sea animals accidentally consume them, leaking chemicals into their bodies and poisoning their systems. Along the food chain, the chemicals build-up. For example, when smaller fish ingest microplastics and the chemicals are released in their bodies, the larger fish that comes to eat them will indirectly absorb the chemicals into its body, and so on.

Eventually, when humans or another animal eats a fish far along the food chain, those chemicals will be absorbed. These chemicals are speculated to be responsible for many cancers and illnesses in humans and animals.

Unfortunately, it is virtually impossible to remove these microplastics from the ocean. The only viable solution is to stop the cycle of plastics entering our ocean ecosystem in the first place, and we can all help with that!

Reducing The Impact of Single-Use Masks

Photo by Fotostorm

The impact of using single-use masks is significant, but thankfully, we have the choice to go a different route and reduce our impact as much as possible. Our efforts may seem small at first, but together we can make a positive change. Here’s how...

Opt for Reusable Fabric Masks

Photo by KenWiedemann

The most effective way to lower your impact on the environment during the Covid-19 pandemic is by opting for reusable fabric masks. Reusable masks are deemed safe and effective as protection against Covid-19 and are not made of plastic either.

In general, reusable masks are made with at least two to three layers of fabric and safely cover the nose, mouth, and chin. For a mask to be deemed safe, it must have a minimum of two layers of fabric in order to effectively stop the wearer's respiratory drops from escaping, and protect the wearer from the respiratory drops of others.

Reusable masks are the only other safe alternative to surgical single-use masks as they can protect against respiratory drops floating in the air, where most shields and clear face protectors do not. They are also far more fashionable and customizable than single-use masks, as you can even match your mask to your outfit without looking like a surgeon coming out of the theatre!

Dispose of Masks Consciously

Image by Jun

Whether you use disposable masks or reusable ones, it is important to dispose of them correctly and safely. Even a cloth mask can pose a hazard to animals and sea life if not disposed of properly.

Before throwing your mask safely in a bin, always cut the straps of the mask. The straps are the most hazardous parts of a mask for unsuspecting bird legs, fish flippers, or turtle mouths. Even when disposed of correctly, your mask may still end up in the ocean accidentally so it is important to take all the necessary precautions.

Protect The Environment: Embrace Reusable

Photo by Ketut Subiyanto

After looking at the impact that disposable masks can have on the environment, it is clear that using them is simply not sustainable. Preparing for the long-term during this challenging time is vital in building a healthy and happy future for ourselves, the animals, and our thriving blue planet. So, if reusable fabric masks are perfectly safe and reliable, it’s time to make the switch.

Liven things up and make staying safe look fashionable with ShopatMAPs reusable Karpar “Protect” Silk Face Masks.

The beautiful silk is hand-dyed and woven by Dy Chanthea, an artisan in Cambodia, and the masks are sewn by the MAP Cambodia Vocational Training Team.

With each purchase, you support Chanthea and help educate an impoverished child in Kandal Province, Cambodia.

Stay safe!

Written by ShopatMAP