Your questions, answered
“Mask-wearing is non-negotiable, and I sew and use and donate cloth masks by the dozens, but I’m also worried about the environmental disaster that might be the inevitable consequence of billions of disposable masks. Are any of the recommended disposable masks fully biodegradable? Is the question of environmental impact under discussion by the CDC and other specialists who formulate recommendations and policies? I’ve seen almost no mention of these questions.” — Lynn in New Hampshire
You are correct on both counts: Yes, disposable masks help protect the wearer and those nearby from coronavirus transmission. And, yes, masks designed to be worn once and tossed away are not the most environmentally friendly option. They're made of polymers that have the potential to become sources of microplastic fiber contamination, as this study of mask degradation notes.
In December, Washington Post reporter Scott Wilson documented mask pollution along California's coast. He wrote: “Many are careless with the new accessory, and in windy places like many along this state’s 840-mile coast, the masks and other products are ending up on sidewalks, skittering into storm drains, blowing onto beaches and ending up in the Pacific Ocean and its bays.”
An annual statewide cleanup effort, sponsored by the California Coastal Commission, found in September that personal protective items such as masks were the 12th most numerous out of 50 types of recovered trash. That was the first time such gear warranted its own category, Wilson reports.
What's the eco-conscious mask-wearer to do? Though the CDC recently recommended double-masking, such as layering a thin cloth mask with a disposable one, that guidance is most relevant to people who must spend time indoors among crowds, or where rates of infection are high.
In other scenarios, cloth face coverings made with multiple layers are acceptable. Per mask, that's a more expensive option. But those face coverings can be washed and used again, and some are made with metal nose wires for a snug, safe fit.
This policy paper from the University of College London's Plastic Waste Innovation Hub warned almost a year ago about the environmental dangers of trashed masks. It noted that hospitals have ways to incinerate or otherwise safely dispose of protective gear not available to the public. The authors of that paper compared machine-washing cloth masks to single-use face masks, and estimated single-use masks generate much more waste. N95 and similar respirators, which shouldn't be layered, can also be sanitized – such as in an electric cooker – to be worn multiple times.
For tips on finding the cloth mask that might work for you, here's the Post's mask FAQ.