Could these face masks help curb plastic pollution?

Could these face masks help curb plastic pollution?

Scientists hopeful that biodegradable face masks could help curb the rapid increase in PPE pollution.

A  year into the pandemic, face masks are now the ‘new normal’ for many of us. While masks may be helping to curb the spread of COVID-19, there is growing evidence that mask-wearing is contributing to another major issue faced by our society - plastic pollution.

Our partner charity, Surfers Against Sewage, say they have seen an “explosion” of discarded masks and plastics on beaches and rivers in the UK. Divers are also spotting more and more waste floating in the water, causing issues for wildlife and washing up on beaches all over the world.

Worldwide, an estimated 129 billion disposable face masks are used and thrown away each month, according to a report in the Environmental Science and Technology Journal.

Single-use face masks are made of a combination of plastics which could take up to 450 years to fully break down if they end up in the sea. Even when thrown away correctly, most PPE cannot be recycled because it is categorized as medical waste, so it usually ends up in landfill.

For many, reusable face masks are an excellent alternative but health care workers and many others need to regularly change their masks.

So what can we do to curb this new wave of plastic pollution?

Scientists at the Korea Research Institute of Chemical Technology (KRICT.) believe they have discovered an answer to this problem. “Contaminated plastic masks are difficult to recycle and must be incinerated or sent to a landfill.” said Sung Yeon Hwang, Professor from the Research Centre for Bio-Based Chemistry.

Most single-use protective gear is made from plastics including polypropylene, polythene and vinyl. but Hwang and his co-workers — Professor Dongyeop Oh and Professor Jeyoung Park — have proposed alternative materials which could be used to make biodegradable filters.

The team’s experiments showed that their biodegradable filter was just as efficient as N95 filters (used in standard PPE), removing 98.3% of particles in a test, and decomposed within 4 weeks in composting soil.

“Any filter manufacturers can buy biodegradable plastics, such as PBS, and make nonwoven filters,” added Hwang. “We think this technology will be easy to implement on an industrial scale and will be very impactful.”

Hwang and his colleagues aren’t the only ones trying to curb PPE pollution, many other companies and individuals are developing alternatives to standard protective gear, including scientists in France who have created facemasks made from Hemp. 

For more eco-friendly face mask tips, check out the video below by City to Sea.

Reference: Sejin Choi, et al., Biodegradable, Efficient, and Breathable Multi‐Use Face Mask Filter, Advanced Science (2021). DOI: 10.1002/advs.202003155

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