What will happen to all the masks?
We use over three million masks a minute. How do we grapple with their necessity and environmental toll?
The company I work for hosted our first work team retreat in two years this past December, thankfully right before “Omicron” became a household name. The retreat was held in a coworking space in a trendy area of Atlanta called the Beltline and used to be an artist’s loft in the seventies. We were in a big room with tall ceilings and skylights and a whiteboard that ran across an entire wall. There were two tables in the middle that took up the bulk of the space that we put together to accommodate our growing team. The projector shined on a screen dimpled by the two barn doors behind it, which hid guitars, furniture, hats, and other knick-knacks collected by tenants. It was a quirky spot for our quirky bunch.
Just about everyone was there: a grandfather from Minnesota, a lively Kenyan customer service manager, our resident Appalachian soil nerd, a Ghanan numbers guy, a Philippine creative spirit, a graphic designer raised on a farm in Southern Georgia, an Indian newlywed, and more.
Together, we work to address global plastic pollution. We do so by making sustainable, plant-based alternatives for foodservice packaging that’s designed to break down into soil at the end of its life.
As the team got situated in their chairs, the usual nice-to-see-you chatter and teasing ensued.
“So what has everyone been watching on Netflix lately?”
“Dave, your hair! It’s gotten so long!”
“You do know you don’t need to wait till retirement to get a haircut, right?”
It all felt so familiar. In fact, it was in this very room where we held our last retreat in December 2019.
And yet, there was a stark difference.
As I stood up at the front of the room to kick things off — almost two years since the start of the global COVID-19 pandemic — I stared at roughly fifteen faces covered by masks.
Masks are ubiquitous.
In my home, they’re still shoved in my car and hang from the key rings in the kitchen, including two versions of N95s with lipstick stains, two fraying blue disposable medical masks, a floral one I purchased for my bridal shower almost a year and a half ago, and an array of political masks from the 2020 elections. One simply says “VOTE.” I’ve tucked the masks I was given last Christmas in-between the seats of my car: a floral mask with adjustable straps, a white cotton hand-embroidered mask, and a mask from an athletic company advertised as lightweight, breathable and quick-drying. Some call this “mask chaos.”
It’s wild to think that mere months after they were first required on public transit in early 2020, masks are an omnipresent and complex global symbol. The options now are endless with sizes ranging from extra-large to child-size small. One can choose between a 100-pack of disposables on Amazon for $15 and designer options from the likes of Burberry or Phillip Lim. A search for “face masks” on the well-known crafters’ site Etsy.com generates over 1 million results. Pragmatics sport the logos of their dentist, workplace, or a favorite brewery — wherever they snagged one for free. A friend even custom-designed a silk mask monogrammed with his initials.
Today, remembering a mask is as much a part of our leaving ritual as grabbing the keys or patting our pockets for phones and wallets. Sure, there was that brief stint in the summer of 2021 when we felt invincible after getting vaccines. (I’ll never forget the exhilaration of walking into a grocery store maskless.) But like rain and traffic, the masks came back with the variants: first Alpha, then Beta, Gamma, Epsilon, Eta, Iota, Kappa, Mu, Zeta, Delta, and now Omicron. No matter the limitations of the Greek alphabet, these variants will go on.
As I looked around the masked room this past December, I felt a tinge disingenuous as I led conversations on how we will battle single-use plastic pollution and climate change as the presence of another systemic global issue was literally and somewhat figuratively suffocating the conversation.
“This has been the most challenging global crisis in our living memory,” I began.
But I had to quickly shake these doubts. Our work was more important than ever before. Alongside the exponential rise in PPE, the pandemic has fueled another disposable economy in single-use plastic packaging, coupled with the widespread suspension of single-use plastic bans over fears of reusables spreading the virus. The problem compounds when we consider that a third of United States recycling companies have been partially or completely closed.
“We have all been impacted personally and professionally by this virus. And as a global team, we’ve borne witness to it all. And yet we persevered.”
Through these pandemic years, we’ve worked tirelessly towards a bigger vision of a regenerative world, rather than a disposable one. One that is caring, compassionate, and unafraid of courage. For us, this looked like many things, including investing money, heart, and soul into launching domestically made compostable packaging, which helped us foster over 150 dignified green jobs across the American Southeast, including for more than 60 farmers, and revitalize local soil and sequester carbon through native, regenerative, perennial crops.
But the biggest example of pursuing a regenerative future — of showing care, compassion, and courage — may have also been the simplest, and the most nuanced: the act of showing up together after two years around this table, thanks to everyone wearing a mask.
So, what will happen to all the masks?
My husband and I are the types of people that go on walks specifically for the purpose of picking up litter. And yet, even we can’t get ourselves to touch the discarded masks tumbling down our neighborhood sidewalk and into the nearby Peachtree Creek with our bare hands. I hate to admit I imagine them laced with virus-infected breath.
Globally, we are using 129 billion disposable face masks a month, which translates to 3 million face masks per minute, according to National Geographic. And while they are advertised as disposable, they will never truly go away. Rather, single-use medical and N95 masks are a mirage in plastic, comprised typically of layers of polypropylene microfibers. Because of this, typical medical disposable masks cannot be recycled or composted, and instead, fill landfills or litter communities like ours. According to National Geographic, scientists have recorded masks around the world, from South American beaches to the uninhabited Soko Islands of Japan.
Plastics are designed to last forever. So although medical masks can be considered ineffective after one use, they will exist in some capacity for hundreds of years as they continue to break down into smaller and more dangerous particles. In fact, a single face mask littered on the beach can release as many as 173,000 microfibers per day, according to a study by Environmental Advances. These are microfibers that are consumed by marine life, and through the food chain, by us. Because the phenomenon of microplastic pollution is still so new, the full public health risk for microplastic ingestion is still largely unknown.
And yet, they will persist among the general public as an unquestionably critical tool in our public health arsenal to evolve from this pandemic status quo. As we all now know, COVID-19 is transmitted predominantly by the inhalation of respiratory droplets and masks can both reduce the risk of an infected person spreading the virus and the risk of an uninfected person inhaling it. The CDC points to numerous studies confirming the benefits of universal masking across a hospital system, several U.S. states, and a German city, among many others. Across the board, these studies demonstrated how masks significantly lowered the risk of infection, and therefore hospitalization and death.
At the end of the day, I can’t simply label masks as another type of plastic pollution to rally against. Far from it. They save lives, and they are one of this era’s most powerful representations of a caring community realized, where the act of wearing a mask shows that I see you and want to protect you as much as me.
There is a feeling of inevitability to masks no matter the environmental toll, much like how we often feel about other single-use plastics. But if there’s anything I’ve learned in the packaging space, it’s that nothing is truly inevitable, and there are ways all of us can make a difference.
For starters, all of those who can get vaccinated should. Vaccination is proven to lower our risk of getting and spreading the virus and prevents serious illness and death. So long as Americans hold off and global communities remain without access, “mask chaos” will remain.
Next, as public health officials elevate recommendations to wear N95s, I recommend checking out this article by the New York Times that offers concrete answers on how long we really can and should reuse our N95s.
I hope we continue to find our masks further and further into drawers, car seats, and storage boxes. And when the next generations discover them, I hope they will be discovering them for the first time, and that we’ll have a story to tell of perseverance when the world was masked.