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The Ubiquity of Face Masks

Are surgical masks a necessary evil of the global pandemic or are we turning a blind eye to an environmental crisis?

In 2020, what was once familiar only in medical dramas and hospitals, became a must-have item. The widespread adoption of surgical masks has evidently helped prevent the spread of COVID-19, but what happens to these masks once they are used?

The icon of the pandemic

As was obvious in pre-pandemic times, our ability to manage the waste that becomes litter is less than perfect. Masks and gloves present an additional problem, due to their lightweight construction – even if they are placed in a rubbish bin, they are light enough to be easily blown away.

Photography by Bofu Shaw

It is difficult to assess how much pandemic-related waste has entered the marine environment. The marine research that could answer the question is unable to be conducted as research vessels are ideal incubators for virus transmission, with multiple poorly ventilated closed spaces and communal areas in which close contact is unavoidable.  

But even without quantitative data, it’s easy to understand the double threat that surgical masks pose to the environment. Not only can they release plastic microfibres, but the ear loops can become entangled with wildlife.

Waste generated in creating the sterile environments needed everywhere has gone largely unnoticed or has been accepted as a necessary evil.

Human safety vs the environment

The health sector has gone into overdrive to ensure the safety of its staff and patients. Although procedures may have been adequate before the pandemic, the focus on minimising or eliminating virus transmission at every opportunity has been dramatically increased.

As a consequence, in the health industry alone, estimates have placed the increase in surgical waste as between 100 and 900 fold.

This dramatic increase has seen many of the existing medical waste treaters in Australia struggle to cope with the added volume of waste, potentially creating problems of stockpiling, and illegal disposal via burial and burning, leading to the release of toxins into the environment and secondary transmission of the disease.

Microplastics found on the beach

Whilst the Victorian EPA has pivoted towards a more flexible approach with clinical waste management via temporary alterations to licencing and interstate movement regulations, the situation is far from ideal.

Cloth masks are just as effective

The COVID 19 virus is the first major pandemic to affect the world subsequent to the widescale adoption of disposable plastic, and as such, it is perhaps unsurprising that we are unprepared for its consequences. Despite this, there is evidence of new approaches beginning to emerge.

An acceptance of reusability is becoming evident, with bodies such as the US Centre for Disease Control and Prevention stating that for the public, washable cloth masks offer the necessary protection, equivalent to that given by disposable masks.

Photography by Charles Deluvio

And while PPE used in the health sector is mostly nonrecyclable or nonreusable, sustainable innovations are starting to appear on the market. For example, the Ford motor company is producing reusable surgical gowns using airbag fabric, which can be washed up to 50 times. Research is also being undertaken into the ultraviolet decontamination of plastic masks for reuse.

What is required, however, is a fundamental shift in approach. There should not have to be a choice between protecting the environment and protecting public health.

In the future, pandemic preparation will need to incorporate sustainability, so that one need not be at the expense of the other.

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Caroline is a creative maker, a community arts worker, and a storyteller. The Story Costumer is a magical dress shop where garments can be hired or tailor-made.
We often hear the phrase ‘think global, act local’, but what does that actually mean for everyday life? Big concepts like climate change can be overwhelming for many people. After all, this is an issue that will impact the entire planet and we only have one of those that we can all live on!

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