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Masks, what next?

Masks that protect, but hurt the planet

The last two years were marked by the pandemic. One of the symbols of this event is without a doubt: the mask. This one appeared in our daily life to become an integral part of it.

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A new must-have accessory

Because of the pandemic, mouth masks have become a real necessity to protect oneself and others, but also to be able to go out in public.

At the beginning, these were a rare commodity because nobody was ready to face a wave of this magnitude. Thus, this small object was primarily intended for medical personnel, but as soon as it became accessible to the general population, it became legion.

Indeed, for a long time, masked faces have invaded all types of public spaces where the accessory seemed to have become the new true norm. But unfortunately, it has not appeared without consequences.

These masks, for the most part, are supposed to be single-use in order to offer optimal protection. Single-use means more waste and using them meant having a large stock of them in order to be able to have them in all circumstances.

It also meant always having an extra mask with you in case you lost your first one.

This is how things started to go wrong. Little by little, they began to litter the floors and overflow from the garbage cans. On the ground or blown away by the wind, they soon became a sign of another problem resulting from the pandemic.

According to National Geographic, 129 billion masks are used every month, which equals 3 million masks used every minute.

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Not easy to get rid of it

The masks are not biodegradable and are made of a plastic material that takes up to 450 years to decompose.

They have also appeared in the oceans, creating a forced encounter between aquatic species that have come face to face with the masks, which they sometimes mistake for food.

Beyond that, their existence in the oceans implies the diffusion of their plastic particles due to their decomposition which end up in our plates because of their growing presence in the food chain. This is all the more worrying as a study from the University of Milan reveals that a disposable mask can release up to 173,000 microplastic fibers into the oceans per day.

These great blue expanses were already not at their best, and masks have added an unnecessary layer. In fact, according to the FPS Public Health, the tons of plastic waste that pollute the oceans reach an average of 8 million each year.

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Ecology endangered by the pandemic

It’s a pretty tricky issue because when the pandemic first came out, the concerns were legitimately elsewhere. So fears and anxieties took over and it was difficult to put things into perspective and think of alternatives that were as effective as surgical masks.

Even the cloth ones were not available to everyone because not everyone had scrap cloth or tools to make them.

Nevertheless, two years later, the findings are there and are unanimous regarding the damage caused by this new plague.

The marine species are the most impacted without forgetting the birds which are the victims. In the long term, we will also be victims. The only possible solutions at our level would be to throw away our masks in the trash and to think more regularly about using fabric masks, if this is not already the case.

In any case, the masks have added yet another environmental problem and have revealed the inability of society, in general, to think eco-responsibly and to have alternatives of this kind in all circumstances.

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What are the solutions?

Even if we are no longer obliged to wear these sometimes embarrassing accessories, especially during hot weather, some companies already offer options to recycle them into school supplies, t-shirts for sports and hospitals via a process that destroys the mask to become blue beads, or into everyday utensils without forgetting the possibility of making furniture or decorative objects.

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Couch-19 by Tobia Zambotti, Iceland / Picture @Raffaele Merler

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