Are Single-use Masks Protectors Or Polluters?

By Hannah Randa

Are Single-use Masks Protectors Or Polluters?

Staring out of my window onto the busy street, I have become accustomed to the sight of people masking up, in line with the Covid 19 containment protocols.  Sadly, discarded masks have also become a common sight on sidewalks, parks, and even roads. As we approach World Environment Day, this got me thinking…


Photo courtesy: KWS

Remember this photo that became a viral sensation earlier this year?  Many people joked that monkeys are more intelligent than humans, enough to know the importance of wearing a mask with the most repeated comment asking “what’s your excuse for not wearing one?” Well, turns out the image was photo-shopped and intentionally posted on April Fool’s day just for laughs.

But have we ever paused to think about the impact that single-use masks could have on our environment and wildlife? It is quite interesting that the photo of the monkey wearing a mask only ignited a conversation about protecting ourselves from coronavirus but no considerations were made about how they could negatively impact the wildlife and environment.

Don’t get me wrong. I agree with scientists who broadly agree that surgical or single-use masks, when worn correctly, mitigate the spread of coronavirus.  What sounds major alarm bells, is the rate at which discarded masks are finding their way in all the wrong places, posing a threat to man, nature and wildlife. Statistics from UNCTAD indicate that there has been an increase in global masks sale from $800 million to $166 billion within one year.  Considering that the average person uses one disposal mask each day, you can already start to picture the mind-boggling scale of the new environmental hazard posed by the very contraptions that should be safeguarding us from a life-threatening virus.

The extensive use of disposable masks only generates millions of tons of wastes within a short period and creates a ‘Plastic Pandemic’ by adding to the existing glut of plastic litter.


Photo courtesy: Africa News

This is because they are made up of plastic fibers particularly polypropylene which can remain in the environment for centuries as they fragment into smaller microplastics and nanoplastics. In addition, once worn it has no other use than to be trashed in the landfills. In some cases, because masks are light in weight, they tend to be blown away and end up being littered around from parking lots to rivers and streams, and into the seas.

The recent social media posts and media reports of animals picking up masks and other personal protective equipment (PPE) may seem humorous. But on the contrary, they should serve as a wake-up call for many and turn our collective focus on the plastic pollution issue. 

Photo courtesy: Today World


Photo Courtesy: Mary Caporal Prior

For instance, take a look at the above images. Animals are usually curious and can easily get entangled with a mask or mistakenly think that it is food. Like the image in the middle of an adult monkey handing over a mask strap to its baby to eat is just not funny and shouldn’t be viewed as an imitative thing to be celebrated. 

Photo Courtesy: Nat Geo
Photo Courtesy: AFP Relax news

The deadly effect is extending to ocean ecosystems where a variety of species are at risk of starving due to having plastic in their stomach or becoming weakened as a result of being suffocated by the mask. 

What can we do to fix this?

Manage the discarded masks responsibly: In an ideal world, the most logical solution would be to just stop wearing single-use disposable masks, right? But it is not that simple, more so for front-line workers. If you must wear single-use masks, you can be a part of the solution by being responsible in terms of how you dispose of them. For instance, cutting off the loops of the masks prevents wildlife from being entangled with them. You should also be diligent when throwing them away by intentionally stuffing them in the garbage bag so that they are not blown away or fall off the bins.

Consider biodegradable options: Alternatively, you could opt for masks made of organic and biodegradable materials. Fortunately, there’s such a wealth of amazing and affordable reusable face coverings made of cotton, linen, bamboo, silk, and hemp - all currently available and being marketed widely. If you are like me, you can consider making the masks on your own with a little guidance from the many tutorials available on YouTube.

Raise awareness: We have the responsibility to respond and be part of the solution. Join us on World Environment day 2021 by helping sound the alarm through sharing this article, sharing images of your observations on social media pages (tag @thepicnicsite_ke), and being more conscious about the environment.