The environmental problem with single-use face masks and why we need to make a change

All One Ocean Beach Cleanup event in San Francisco. Nicole Cibellis/All One Ocean

 The journey to increasing the use of reusable face masks

Due to COVID-19, single-use face masks and personal protective equipment have increased across the globe. Every month, the planet uses about 129 billion single-use face masks, which equates to about 3 million masks per minute. Though PPE is extremely necessary and beneficial to people’s health, a new problem has arisen regarding the improper disposal of medical equipment into the environment.

As for solutions, there are currently no procedures or guidelines in place regarding the proper disposal of single-use masks. These single-use face masks are non-recyclable due to the harmful exposure to waste management and sanitation workers. 

The most environmentally friendly alternative to single-use face masks would be washable, reusable fabric face masks that can be worn repeatedly. For COVID-19 plastic pollution to decrease, the use of fabric face masks should increase worldwide.

The Orange County Coastkeeper is a non-profit corporation that it’s time to protecting water resources in the O.C. The Keepers are a diverse staff that helps the environment through education, advocacy, restoration, research, enforcement and sustainability. 

Katie Nichols of the Orange County Coastkeeper says that she has also personally seen masks and additional trash around the county due to the pandemic. Light blue surgical face masks are found on the streets and around our environment, which is a new contributing factor to plastic pollution around the world.

“Coastkeeper is really looking forward to resuming our large community cleanup events at Huntington State Beach,” Nichols said. “In the meantime, we’ve been asking individuals to do their part in the neighborhoods and conducting small cleanups.”

Environmental organizations have been increasing their efforts to educate the public on this problem and what steps could help. From cleanups to informational articles, environmental groups are educating people every day. 

All One Ocean is an organization that is on the mission to educate communities on the impact of litter and trash in our oceans and waterways. Nicole Cibellis of All One Ocean explains how single-use masks are woven with plastic, making it harder for them to decompose naturally.

“It is critical that everyone wears masks,” Cibellis said. “but we do have a choice about the kind of masks we wear.”

Not only do single-use masks leak plastics into water that can harm people, but masks also pose a danger for marine animals, according to an article by For example, animals may see the masks and mistake them for jellyfish. Animals could also get caught in the straps of the masks, which can lead to strangulation and starvation. 

Recently, a movement over social media has emphasized the need to ‘Cut the Straps’ of single-use masks when throwing them away. This action would reduce the chance of mask strangulation with animals. 

“Everyone has the ability to make simple everyday choices that will change these outcomes,” Cibellis said. “It starts with using reusable masks.” 

Moving forward, it is important to start using reusable, cloth face masks to reduce the amount of waste that single-use face masks cause. Cloth masks could be found both online and in stores and are a great alternative to single-use masks that are usually thrown away after one use. 

As the mask mandate remains in certain areas of the world, more and more people are still using single-use face masks daily. However, switching to using environmentally friendly, reusable masks is the best option to help reduce pollution and harm to wildlife.