The coronavirus outbreak is forcing societies all over the world to adapt to a new reality. In order to avoid the spread of the pandemic, people are being asked (and often forced) to adopt new hygienic habits – such as the use of masks. But how sustainable are these coronavirus masks? Is there any safe and sustainable alternative?

Preventing Coronavirus Infection By Using Sustainable Face Masks

How can people’s consumption habits be changed in a way that best protect us from the risk of infection while not harming the environment? When it comes to masks, a good and sustainable first approach could be choosing reusable masks rather than buying disposable ones – we’ll get there just now.

TBM is a Japanese company producing LIMEX, a supposedly environmentally and economically viable material that can substitute paper and plastic. According to Nobuyoshi Yamasaki, the company’s CEO, many disposable face masks are made of petroleum-derived plastic and their inappropriate disposal takes out to the seashore where they contribute to plastic pollution.

That is why besides discarding face masks responsibly it is also important to avoid creating large amounts of trash as happens with the wide use of the cirurgical masks – which makes them not so sustainable. So what type of face masks should those leaving home for short periods and living in non-infected areas use to be safe which acting sustainably?

Coronavirus: Leave N95 Masks For Those Who Really Need Them

Apart from those infected, the people working in environments with a high risk of containing the virus, such as doctors dealing with infected people, should definitely use N95 respirator masks. These are said to be the most efficient masks out there and the holy grail of protection against the coronavirus.

However, those living in calm areas with none or low infection rates should leave N95 face masks to those who really need it. Sure, everyone needs to be careful and play on the safe side. But with many places facing supply shortages – up to the point many are now disinfecting and reusing them-, we should leave them to those in greater danger. It is the most socially responsible choice to make.

For quick supermarkets exits, family visits or office work, the typical surgical masks with the three-ply structure – a waterproof front and back layer, and a sub-micron pore-sized non-woven fabric middle layer – will do the job just fine. As long as they are combined with the remaining basic hygiene rules like handwashing and avoiding face contact.

Unfortunately, these cirurgical face masks are (advised) to be used only once and their petrol-based composition makes them a non-eco-friendly alternative as they harm the ecosystem the end up at and they can’t be recycled. Luckily, there are reusable cloth face masks.

Cloth Face Masks: Avoiding The Virus While Protecting The Planet

Home-made cloth masks have been introduced as an interesting way of dealing with the shortage of face masks while giving some use to old fabrics and forgotten coffee filters from before everyone started using capsules. Indeed, repurposing and reusing what we have at home, following the DIY advice of credible institutions such as the CDC looks both interesting and sustainable.

However, home-made masks are not classified as medical devices which means they may not have the required pore sizes and porosity that offer greater security. That is why today, with a greater number and variety of masks available, getting certified masks is most likely a safer choice.

Given this, and since cirurgical masks have the single-used and non-recyclable problem, reusable and certified clothes masks show up as the most sustainable and safest option when used correctly, washed properly and disposed of responsibly. But are cloth face masks they really safe?

Cloth Face Masks: A Sustainable, Reusable And Safe Mask

The CDC recommends cloth face masks with multiple layers of fabric that fit securely against the face while allowing for clear breathing. The masks should also resist getting damaged or changing shape after being laundered and dried. Cloth masks meeting these recommendations can, therefore, be considered safe.

Nonetheless, there seems to be a lack of strong scientific evidence that cloth and even cirurgical masks – only the N95 masks is truly safe – will adjust to the face tightly enough to form a seal. That is why handwashing and social distancing are such important complements to masks.

In the end, reusable and certified cloth masks with filters such as HEPA (able to block 80-95% of fine particles) seem to be among the safest and most environmentally friendly face masks options. They are washable, reusable and recyclable. The choice for consumers that care about sustainability and issues such as ocean protection.

If these cloth masks use organically grown cotton (or some other efficient fabric) that is also locally sourced, and if the masks are produced locally, their carbon footprint will likely be lower – which is good news, planet-wise. If you purchase from a small, certified, entrepreneurial business – like refugees or unemployed individuals – you will also be helping them survive these financially hard times. It’s a socially responsible choice too.

[Photo by engin akyurt on Unsplash]