The Disposable Dilemma

Disposable masks have become a great threat to our oceans, as the plastic makes them impossible to decompose.


image courtesy of Anthony Wallace/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The heightened use of disposable masks has made a bad impact on the environment.

Flynn McGurrin, Staff Writer

It’s beyond debate that face coverings are essential to public health during a viral pandemic. But while they have played a central role in slowing the spread of COVID-19, disposable masks may have long-term, negative effects on the environment. 

In 2020, the total revenue brought in from disposable mask sales totaled a whopping 166 billion dollars—over 200 times more money than in 2019. Scientists predict that of these disposable masks, 75 percent of them will end up in landfills, or in the ocean. This is an enormous problem for the environment for a number of reasons.

Disposable face masks are made of a number of different plastics. These plastics are very difficult and toxic to break down, which makes recycling them nearly impossible. This pollution also negatively affects fisheries and other ocean-related businesses and costs the global economy over 13 billion dollars per year.

According to Oceans Asia, there are over 1.5 billion used disposable masks in the ocean as of December 6th, 2020. The amount of plastic waste in the ocean was already at a dangerous level before COVID-19, and billions of masks being dumped into the ocean will rapidly accelerate pollution.

Marine Insight

Plastic pollution has become a threat to the earth’s wildlife as well. Not only do animals accidentally eat plastics, but they often get tangled up in the ear straps of masks. Over one million marine animals, including mammals, fish, turtles, and birds, are killed each year due to excessive plastic waste, and billions of masks being added to the mix will only increase this number. Unfortunately, experts predict that disposable masks will still be worn by a number of people around the world, so mask pollution will continue to increase for the considerable future.

So what can be done to stop this issue? There are a number of ways you can keep your mask from polluting the environment. If you choose to wear a disposable face covering, be sure to cut the ear straps before you throw it away. Cutting your ear straps ensures that no ocean animals will get caught in your mask, should they find their way into the water. However, even if you cut your ear straps, disposing of your face covering incorrectly could still cause your mask to find its way to the ocean.

While the mask may be less harmful to sea life, the plastics in it will prevent it from ever decomposing. The best thing to do with your disposable mask is to not only cut your ear straps but to also ensure that you dispose of your mask properly and avoid littering. Simply going out of your way to dispose of your mask properly can go a long way in ensuring that it does not end up in the ocean. 

However, the simplest and most effective way to avoid disposable mask pollution is to avoid purchasing them. Reusable, wash-safe, cloth face coverings can be found just about anywhere on the internet. Wearing a reusable cloth mask completely eliminates the need for disposable masks. Furthermore, reusable cloth masks come in many different colors, patterns, and designs. Cloth masks can match any type or color outfit and allow wearers to level up their style past basic and bland disposable masks.  The CDC, as well as a number of disease prevention organizations around the world, encourage their citizens to wear cloth face coverings. 

A highly unlikely but also a highly effective solution to the disposable mask issue would be a full-scale, nationwide disposable mask ban. But as long as a disposable mask ban is unrealistic, each one of us will have to work hard to limit disposable mask pollution in the world’s increasingly vulnerable oceans. Be sure to talk to your friends and family about the dangers of disposable masks in order to do your part to stop ocean pollution, and be sure to stick to a cloth mask from now on.