Are disposable masks biodegradable?  

This article will explain the environmental aspect and biodegradability status of disposable masks. Other aspects covered would be: 

  • Why must disposable masks be biodegradable?
  • What are disposable masks made of?
  • What is the environmental impact of disposable masks?
  • What is biodegradation?
  • Are disposable masks biodegradable?
  • FAQs

Are disposable masks biodegradable?

No, disposable masks are not biodegradable. The materials used to make disposable masks include polypropylene, polycarbonate, polyester et cetera. 

Disposable masks are commonly made from polypropylene. It is non-biodegradable and will require more than 25 years to degrade by the action of microbes or enzymes. 

Disposable masks are regarded as hazardous waste and therefore must not be disposed of with other non-biodegradable waste. This is because surgical or disposable masks may cause the spreading of infectious microbes. 

Other than non-biodegradable, surgical masks can not be recycled because these masks may clog the recycling machinery while the risk of microbial infection is still there. 

However, there are some alternatives to our aid. Initiatives such as Terracycle will recycle surgical masks. However, one may need to paddle a bit extra for it as it is a paid process. 

Why must masks be biodegradable?

Before aiming at the main stance of the blog post which is to unravel the biodegradability status of masks, it is important to also know why the biodegradability of masks matters.

That is said because every consumer product will have some effect on the environment and life. While some consumer products will have lesser impacts, there are anticipated to be prolonged effects of other consumer products. 

This discrepancy can be rightly explained by the example of textiles. There are two types of textiles that exist. One is natural textiles made from natural fabrics such as cotton or wool while the other is synthetic textiles that are made from synthetic fabrics such as polyester et cetera. 

The environmental impact of synthetic textiles is far greater and outdone as compared to the environmental impact that is rendered by natural textiles. In the case of biodegradability alone, natural fabrics may degrade in a few weeks whereas, it may take more than 500 years for some synthetic textiles to degrade by the action of microbes. 

Therefore, it is very important to know and ensure what is the environmental impact of the product you are using or about to use. This can lead to better implementation and safe choices not from the end consumers but also from the end producers. 

The idea of using face masks has existed from the very start. However, the real surge in the use of masks happened with the advent of COVID-19. 

As the fears and superstitions of COVID-19 grappled every household, everyone was obliged to wear face masks whether they liked it or not. It was a result of this that more than 1.5 billion face masks were discarded in oceans alone for the year 2022. 

However, with the increased use of face masks, there emerged a very important question that was what was the environmental impact of face masks on the people and the planet 

With the questions, the quest for the biodegradability status of face masks was also questioned. More than that, it was curiously asked which face mask was best to use that also adhered to the environmental interests as well. This article will focus on all such questions. 

What are disposable masks made of?  (5 materials used to make face masks) 

The question of what materials are used in the making of any consumer product will tell us a lot about the reality of that product and its impact on the environment. 

For example, the example given in the last section clearly unveiled and expressed that products that were made from natural materials had less impact on the environment as compared to products made from man-made materials. 

This is mainly because when a product is made from synthetic materials, these materials do not gel well with the nature codes and ways. For example, the reason why a product is not biodegradable is that microbes or enzymes are unable to break down its structure. 

Therefore, we can develop this not-so-rigid rule of thumb that the greater use of synthetic and man-made materials in any product will no doubt increase its utilitarian value of it but this increase will happen at the cost of our environment and sustainability. 

Now, reclining back to our main question. What materials are involved in the making of disposable masks?

Disposable masks are often called surgical masks. These masks are commonly used in hospitals by doctors and nurses. These masks are known to protect the wearer from catching and spreading infections. 

The main materials that are used in the making of surgical masks involve a non-woven fabric that may be made from: 

  • Polypropylene 
  • Polystyrene 
  • Polycarbonate
  • Polyester 
  • Polyethylene 

It is argued that the main material or the most commonly used material for mask making is polypropylene. 

It is argued that disposable face masks are made from multiple layers. A typical face mask will be made from 3-4 layers of the said materials. 

There are also multiple layers of filters so that disposable masks may offer better protection and safety from air-borne microbes. 

Disposable masks come in different variations. These are present because of the different levels of protection needed. 

Other than the standard minimum protection, there are three levels of protection offered by surgical masks. As the ladder goes up, the filtration capacity and mask quality also increases. For example, level 3 masks may be used for protection against aerosols with a 160 mmHg fluid resistance. 

What is the environmental impact of disposable masks?

This section will cover and disclose the environmental impact rendered by the use and disposal of face masks.

These effects can be explained and argued from multiple frames. The section will cover all of those. 

Firstly, face masks that are dealt with in this article (surgical face masks also referred to as disposable masks) are made from synthetic materials such as polypropylene. 

This material is known to cause environmental anomalies largely because polypropylene is made from derivatives of fossil fuels. 

When products are made from fossil fuels, this means that there is increased emission of greenhouse gases. Greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, or methane are known to cause many environmental anomalies such as global warming or unprecedented weather challenges. 

However, it is claimed that among the options available, PP is the safest because it leads to the minimum amount of GHG emissions and toxic waste generation. 

Another impact that is rendered by the use of surgical masks is the fact that most of the materials used to make masks are non-biodegradable. This means that masks will remain in the environment for many years. 

One factor that makes this fact further exacerbated is that although face masks are made from common materials, they can not be discarded with common materials. Used face masks have to be treated as hazardous waste and therefore, must be disposed of with caution. 

The reason why face masks are treated as hazardous waste is the fact that face masks may contain harmful or infectious microbes or pathogens which may cause greater harm to society. 

Therefore, there is no way that face masks can be composted, let alone recycled. There are around 7-8 billion people on the planet. If an average person uses two masks in a day, this means that there are 14-16 billion face mask waste generated every day.

As per stats, the emergence of COVID-19 led to a generation of more than 7000 tons of medical waste (inclusive of face masks) every day. 

These figures are beyond staggering and require the scientific community to action, introspection, and innovation. 

What is biodegradation?

Biodegradability can be defined as a process in which biological agents such as enzymes and microbes break down complex waste into simpler structures. The simpler structures are thus able to get back to the system. 

There are many examples of biodegradation that you come by every day. The most common example will be the spoilage of food or rotten vegetables. It is the microbes in action. 

It is the very process of biodegradation that is responsible for the spoilage of food. It can be termed the necessary evil because on one side food is spoiled but on the other side, it is ensured that there is no waste accumulation. 

If there is waste accumulation, there will be environmental problems and anomalies because the waste will lead to problems such as pollution and human diseases. 

Other than microbes and enzymes, there are also external factors that play a key role in the process of biodegradation. These include aeration, sunlight, temperature, pressure, et cetera. 

Based on biodegradability, waste may be divided into two categories. These are 

  • Biodegradable waste
  • Non-biodegradable waste 

Examples of biodegradable waste include crops, plants, dead animals, manure, sewage, bioplastics, and natural fabrics. These may degrade in some days or some months. 

Examples of non-biodegradable waste may include synthetic plastics, epoxies, synthetic dyes, and synthetic fabrics like acrylic fabrics. These substances may remain in landfills for hundreds of years. 

For example, synthetic plastics may degrade in more than a thousand years while also causing other environmental problems such as global warming, weather anomalies et cetera. 

Conclusion: Are disposable masks biodegradable?

Based on the current understanding, it can be said that disposable masks are not biodegradable because these masks are made from non-biodegradable material. 

Disposable masks are commonly made from polypropylene. It is non-biodegradable and will require more than 25 years to degrade by the action of microbes or enzymes. 

Disposable masks are regarded as hazardous waste and therefore must not be disposed of with other non-biodegradable waste. This is because surgical or disposable masks may cause the spreading of infectious microbes. 

Other than non-biodegradable, surgical masks can not be recycled because these masks may clog the recycling machinery while the risk of microbial infection is still there. 

However, there are some alternatives too. There is an initiative known as Terracycle that will recycle surgical masks. However, one may need to paddle a bit extra for it as it is a paid process. 

Frequently Asked Questions: Are disposable masks biodegradable?

Which is better: surgical mask or cloth mask?

In terms of environmental impact, cloth masks are better since they can be reused. However, in terms of protection, surgical masks are better off since they offer better protection. 

How long will disposable masks take to degrade?

Disposable or surgical masks will degrade in about 25-30 years. This will vary based on the materials used to make surgical masks and also on external conditions. 

References

  • Chen, X., Chen, X., Liu, Q., Zhao, Q., Xiong, X., & Wu, C. (2021). Used disposable face masks are significant sources of microplastics to the environment. Environmental Pollution, 285, 117485.
  • Du, H., Huang, S., & Wang, J. (2022). Environmental risks of polymer materials from disposable face masks linked to the COVID-19 pandemic. Science of The Total Environment, 152980.
  • Sullivan, G. L., Delgado-Gallardo, J., Watson, T. M., & Sarp, S. (2021). An investigation into the leaching of micro and nano particles and chemical pollutants from disposable face masks-linked to the COVID-19 pandemic. Water Research, 196, 117033.
  • Lee, K. P., Yip, J., Kan, C. W., Chiou, J. C., & Yung, K. F. (2020). Reusable face masks as alternative for disposable medical masks: factors that affect their wear-comfort. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 17(18), 6623.
  • Soo, X. Y. D., Wang, S., Yeo, C. C. J., Li, J., Ni, X. P., Jiang, L., … & Loh, X. J. (2022). Polylactic acid face masks: Are these the sustainable solutions in times of COVID-19 pandemic? Science of The Total Environment, 807, 151084.
  • Terracycle. Recycling of Personal Protective Equipment. Retrieved from: https://www.terracycle.com/en-CA/pages/ppe-recycling

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