The clock is ticking. There are about 4,400 days left until landfills in Ontario are full. Yet, while many industries face increasing pressure to decrease their environmental impacts, the medical sector quietly marches on in the wrong direction.
In the daily fight against COVID-19, we have enacted measures to prevent the transmission of the virus but have neglected the impact such practices will have on the planet and on future generations.
Most COVID-19 restrictions in Canada, including mask mandates, have been lifted. However, other areas of the world with lower vaccination rates are still struggling. And each new wave – COVID is surging again in the U.K. and Europe – or variant that emerges reinforces that the pandemic is truly a global issue, and thus a global responsibility. So long as mask use remains necessary for some, the environmental consequences will be felt by all.
The true amount of waste produced because of the pandemic is difficult to quantify. However, a research article published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in the U.S. estimates that the amount of pandemic-associated plastic waste worldwide exceeds 8 million tons, with more than 25,000 tons entering the oceans.
During this high-profile campaign to convince people to wear a mask, seemingly little thought has been given to what happens when people take them off. At the height of the pandemic, an estimated 129 billion face masks were used every month. One hospital in Sudbury reported using 265,000 masks in a month compared to 40,000 per month pre-pandemic.
Though there are no universal rules for what disposable masks can be made from, many are made of plastic. As with any other single-use plastic, these items inevitably cause environmental damage. When exposed to the sun’s ultraviolet rays, a single discarded mask can release more than 1.5 million microplastic particles into the water and a further 16 million particles if weathered in sand.
Discarded masks have become a common sight on sidewalks and parking lots – the new cigarette butts – and serve as breeding grounds for bacteria, fungi and even viruses that may spread disease in the ecosystems where they are discarded – an ironic end for something created for our protection. Some countries incinerate face masks as medical waste, releasing carbon into the atmosphere. We are lucky if the masks even make it to a landfill.
There is no question that masks slowed the spread of COVID-19, and in doing so, saved countless lives. But now, more than two years into the pandemic, we must adjust and prepare for future outbreaks and pandemics.
There is no question that masks slowed the spread of COVID-19, and saved countless lives. But now we must adjust and prepare for future outbreaks and pandemics.
The Public Health Agency of Canada does comment on the environmental impact of single-use masks, encouraging Canadians to reuse masks when appropriate and to use mask recycling programs when possible. However, the recycling programs are not commonly available. Biodegradable masks have been developed but are far from commonplace and do not address carbon dioxide emissions created by mask production.
In choosing a more sustainable mask, effectiveness against transmission cannot be compromised. Unfortunately, the ongoing fight to convince people to wear any mask at all has left development of more effective and sustainable masks by the wayside.
Though we have squandered many opportunities to prepare for the future throughout the pandemic, we can still seize this window to develop more sustainable practices in Canada and, hopefully, the world.
To weigh the health of humans against that of the planet itself is an impossible task. However, as stated in Increased plastic pollution due to COVID-19 pandemic: Challenges and recommendations, we must acknowledge that human health depends on the health of the environment. We cannot continue to behave as though environmental harm caused by the medical sector is a necessary evil. Our battle with the transmissible Omicron variant was a painful reminder of our failure to develop masks that are both effective and environmentally safe – a mistake we cannot afford to repeat.
To prepare for the next COVID wave or novel pandemic, we must invest in the development of safe, effective and reusable masks. These options must be studied and certified such that Canadians can be confident instead of confused. Though face masks have helped gain the upper hand against COVID-19, if we continue to consider the needs of today above sustainability for tomorrow, it might not even matter.