Surgical face masks have become the ubiquitous symbol of the COVID-19 pandemic. While the debate on mask mandates rages on, there is a less talked about concern around protective face coverings: their environmental impact.
Numerous global reports have documented how an enormous surge in discarded face masks has overwhelmed waste management frameworks and threatened sensitive ecosystems.
“Single-use surgical face masks contain a large amount of polypropylene and can be considered as a plastic product,” said Amos Lee, an A*STAR graduate scholar at the National University of Singapore (NUS) and former research engineer at A*STAR’s Singapore Institute of Manufacturing Technology (SIMTech). “Thus, it shares the longevity similar to other plastic products and takes a long time to decompose after disposal.”
In response, reusable face masks like the Singapore-developed embedded filtration layer (EFL) face mask have emerged as an eco-friendly alternative. However, there appear to be certain scenarios where one-time use surgical masks can be more environmentally friendly compared to reusable options. This raises the question: are EFL face masks indeed greener than their disposable counterparts?
To address this unknown, Lee and colleagues at SIMTech examined and compared emissions and waste generated between the two face mask formats. The team conducted an exhaustive life cycle assessment which involved tracking pollutants emitted from the early stages of raw material extraction to their end-of-life disposal for each face mask.
Their results revealed that reusable EFL face masks produced fewer emissions and less waste than disposable ones. “Over 31 days, the use of the EFL reusable face mask will generate 1.7 times lower carbon footprint and 10 times less solid waste compared to single-use surgical face masks in the context of Singapore,” explained Lee.
The study provides valuable evidence to help policymakers make sustainable public health choices and craft public messaging. However, environmental impacts are often multi-faceted, making it challenging to determine the greenest option.
“When considering emission relating to climate change, fossil fuel and metal depletion as well as freshwater and marine ecotoxicity, the more sustainable choice for Singapore is the EFL reusable face mask,” said Lee, adding that surgical masks are superior in other sustainability metrics, like water pollution and human toxicity.
Moving forward, Lee calls for more research and funding around creating more environmentally safe personal protection equipment, with a focus on alternative materials, better recycling capabilities and eco-friendly fabrication methods.
The A*STAR-affiliated researchers contributing to this research are from the Singapore Institute of Manufacturing Technology (SIMTech).