These days, whenever leaving the house, you always have to remember to grab a mask. Whether you’re heading to the grocery store, walking around the crowded downtown area, or heading to school, a mask is the key to entry.  

However, this can pose a challenge — after all, it can be difficult to constantly have freshly washed, reusable masks at hand. Everyone, on some occasion, has found themselves in a scenario where they just decided to grab a single-use mask instead. After all, they’re breathable, they’re comfortable, and they’re widely available. But this usage of single-use masks has a disastrous effect on the environment, leading to a dramatic increase in trash, with 240 tons of single-use plastic being used per day at hospitals in Wuhan, where the first COVID-19 outbreak began.  Because these masks are not recyclable, they are often disposed of in landfills or an animal’s natural habitat, leading to choking, entanglement, or even death.  

Furthermore, according to Elvis Genbo Xu, an environmental toxicologist, single-use masks are not biodegradable, meaning that over time, they will slowly break down and introduce more microplastics into our oceans. Microplastics are very harmful if ingested by humans or animals, further worsening the dire situation of pollution in the oceans.  

However, single-use masks do have their benefits, which is one of the reasons they are one of the most popular types of face-covering available. They are lightweight and more comfortable to wear, making it extremely easy to throw one on for any type of exercise or long event. Secondly, they are inexpensive, an important factor in a time where many are struggling to make ends meet due to the pandemic-induced economic downturn. Thus, for many people, it is easier to choose single-use masks as they cost less than the reusable type and are more breathable. 

While there are undeniably reasons in favor of single-use masks, in the long run, the environmental consequences far outweigh said benefits. According to studies, 2.8 million single use masks are being used per minute, and a staggering 129 billion of them are used per month. These shocking statistics produce a grave picture of a future environmental disaster, one where there could soon be more masks than jellyfish in the Mediterranean Sea.

In order to combat environmental damage, we need to use caution. If single-use masks are your only option, experts recommend it is highly recommended you snip off the strings before disposing of a mask after using to prevent the entanglement of animals. 

Since currently there is no guidance regarding the recycling of single-use masks, many are simply thrown away. Governments across the globe should actively promote the use of reusable masks, while at the same time emphasizing their environmental friendliness so as to curtail the usage of the single-use kind. Authorities should also work on creating a single-use mask that is biodegradable and recyclable.  With these steps, a major plastic crisis could be avoided, and we can protect our oceans for future generations. 

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